EM 2024: Why the group third rule is controversial

EM 2024: Why the group third rule is controversial
EM 2024: Why the group third rule is controversial

It was a change at the European Championship with the potential for conflict: Since 2016, four of the six best third-placed teams in a group have qualified for the final round. This is also causing trouble at the European Championship in Germany.

The 2016 European Championship caused controversy even before it began. For the first time, 24 teams instead of 16 competed in the European Championship in France – divided into six groups of four teams each. But the number of teams immediately caused a problem. Because UEFA introduced a round of 16 for the first time, 16 of the 24 teams had to reach the knockout round. The usual procedure of the two best teams in each group advancing was no longer sufficient; four of the six third-placed teams had to complete the round of 16.

“The sporting value of individual games, but also of the entire competition, is declining,” said the then national coach Joachim Löw beforehand. The team manager at the time, Oliver Bierhoff, also warned against letting football “become arbitrary.”

The new rule was already shown to be absurd at the first European Championship: Albania, third in Group A, had to wait three days until it was clear that the team would not make it to the round of 16. The “culprit” for this was Portugal, which played three draws in the final Group F in a relatively easy group with mediocre performances and was the last team to qualify for the round of 16.

EM 2024: Regulation for third-placed teams gives room for agreement

1 Romania 2 3:2 3
2 Belgium 2 2:1 3
3 Slovakia 2 2:2 3
4 Ukraine 2 2:4 3

The rules for the 2024 European Championship are also being criticized ahead of the final four games on Wednesday. The fact that not all twelve games can take place at the same time is understandable – but it also brings with it accusations of distortion of competition. A look at Group E is enough to make the problem clear. Romania, Belgium, Slovakia and Ukraine each have three points after two games. Since the first-placed Romanians are facing the third-placed Slovakia, a draw is enough for both teams to reach the round of 16 – regardless of the result of the other game.

Such a situation will set off alarm bells for football fans and bring back memories of the 1982 World Cup. At that time, in the Spanish city of Gijón, both Germany and Austria had reached the next round thanks to the DFB selection’s 1:0 win – at the expense of Algeria, which had already exited the group phase. The game went down in history as the Shame of Gijón. From then on, the final two games of a group were always played at the same time.

Both Romania and Slovakia have previously assured that there will be no agreement of any kind. “I am not commenting on these statements in the press. We are professionals, we know that a draw could help us to advance. But that means nothing,” explained Francesco Calzona, Slovakia’s national coach, at the press conference before the match. On Tuesday evening, Slovenia only needed a draw against the already qualified English to advance to the next round, as did the Danes against Serbia. In the end, both games ended 0-0, with Denmark and Slovenia celebrating their place in the round of 16.

Place country Games Gates Points
1 Netherlands 3 4:4 4
2 Slovakia 2 2:2 3
3 Slovenia 3 2:2 3
4 Hungary 3 2:5 3
5 Croatia 3 3:6 2
6 Czech Republic 2 2:3 1

The same fate could befall Hungary at this European Championship as it was with Albania in 2016, and they could be knocked out of the knockout rounds at the last minute. The Hungarians are currently the fourth-best team in the group of third-placed teams and have to keep an eye on the duel between the Czech Republic and Turkey. A win would put the Czechs in second place in their group, while Turkey would come in third. But Turkey would only miss out on the knockout rounds if the Czechs won by three goals – otherwise the Hungarians would have failed after three days of waiting, and their preparation for a possible opponent would already have been severely shortened.

When money is more important than performance: FIFA also changes its rules

However, a change in the rules seems unlikely. An expansion to 32 teams for the final round would dilute the sporting performance even further – and make qualification almost unnecessary given that there are 55 associations in UEFA. UEFA will not consider a return to 16 teams for commercial reasons alone; the revenue from the increase from 16 to 24 teams rose from around 1.4 billion euros (2012) to the now reported 2.4 billion euros.

This is especially true as the UEFA president is almost certain to be voted out if the competition is reduced in size. The expansion to 24 teams came about because the then UEFA president Michel Platini promised the smaller and medium-sized associations an increase in the number of participants before the 2007 election.

However, the problem of third-placed teams in groups is nothing new. FIFA tested the rule at the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups – before the number of participants was increased in 1998. In 1986, Bulgaria and Uruguay only needed two points to reach the round of 16 (and were eliminated there). But the fact that commerce is more important than performance and criticism will become clear at the 2026 World Cup in North America. This will be the first time that 48 teams will be divided into 12 groups, and FIFA is planning a round of 32 for the first time.

Because 32 teams are needed for this, eight of the twelve third-placed teams in the group qualify for the knockout round. FIFA is also expanding the number of games by adding another knockout round: instead of the previous 64, 104 matches will be played. “If more countries have the chance to play on the global stage, they will do more to develop football,” said Arsène Wenger, director at FIFA, in an attempt to justify the expansion. However, the fact that FIFA is taking in eleven billion euros in revenue, four billion euros more than at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, may have been the decisive factor.

The Portuguese proved at the 2016 European Championship that you can get maximum results with minimal effort. After three draws in the preliminary round, Cristiano Ronaldo’s team rumbled through the knockout rounds and benefited from the much easier tournament tree. In the end, the Portuguese became European champions – and managed the feat of winning just one of the seven matches from the preliminary round to the final (2-0 in the semi-final against Wales) within 90 minutes.

Source: Stern

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