Euro 2016: Quantity, not quality?

    Story highlights

    • Euro 2016 features 24 teams
    • Eight more than previous competition
    • Mendieta: Expansion affecting quality
    • Ancelotti: "elite" nature of competition will shine through in latter stages

    (CNN)Can you have too much football?

    The 15th edition of the European Championship is testing that theory, given its group stages involve more matches -- 36 -- than the entirety of any of the previous tournaments.
      While the previous total tally of 31 games resulted in a champion, this time the 36 group games in France will simply eliminate ... eight teams.
      And there will still be another 15 games to be played.
      It's just one reason why the decision by European football body UEFA to expand the tournament to 24 teams has been criticized by some.
      "They don't realize players are human beings, whose bodies have limitations," Gaizka Mendieta, who played at Euro 2000 for Spain, told CNN.
      "The expansion means more games for players who have played so many games -- 60 to 80 -- during the season, which makes it more difficult for them.
      "Then people wonder why these players don't play well every game. Well, sorry, it's impossible -- both physically and mentally."
      Like many perhaps, Mendieta is split about the decision taken in 2008 to expand the Euros, which had featured 16 teams from 1996 to 2012.
      While he welcomes the increased opportunity for smaller nations and their star players to play at a major finals, he's concerned about the knock-on effects for the quality of football.

      The cream always rises?

      When the first European Championship took place in 1960, just four countries took part. In 1980, the tournament doubled in size to eight.
      Now, with 44% of the 54 nations that entered qualifying having had a chance of reaching this year's finals in France, has the quality been diluted?
      "The question answers itself. Half the teams making it through cannot be the crème de la crème," Mendieta argues.
      "For the crème de la crème, you need to narrow that down to the best teams so that the tournament delivers the best quality and players in that moment.
      "Less games is better for the quality."
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      Another former international, Owen Hargreaves, shares this fragmented view.
      "Beforehand, it was almost harder to win (this tournament) than any other, because the collection of teams was so exclusive," said the ex-Manchester United and Bayern Munich midfielder, who starred for England at Euro 2004.
      "Obviously, with the expansion, you think about teams like Iceland who wouldn't be here without it. So having some of those smaller teams in is great because it grows football."
      Iceland wouldn't have reached the Euros under the old system, but finishing second in its qualifying group was enough this time.
      And Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Portugal perfectly encapsulated the debate about whether the decision to expand the tournament was good or bad.
      With its population of 360,000, Iceland rightly celebrated its barely-credible feat of tying with a team in FIFA's top 10 ranking, and it's estimated that 8% of the country's population was in the stadium in St. Etienne to watch.
      "What a game. What a team. This is like victory. Congratulations, boys. Go Iceland!" Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson tweeted.
      Meanwhile, Portugal's superstar Cristiano Ronaldo complained loudly and bitterly, accusing the islanders of having a "small mentality" who just chose to "defend, defend, defend."
      The more limited teams' lack of quality and creative play naturally dictates a safety-first defensive approach. After all, no coach wants to have a shellacking on their CV.
      This may also be why the number of goals scored early on in the competition has reduced.
      Just 18 goals were scored in the first 10 games of Euro 2016, seven fewer than at the same stage in 2012, whereas the first 10 matches of the 2014 World Cup featured 34 goals.
      After all 24 teams had played once in the June 10 - July 10 competition, the average number of goals per match was 1.83, fewer than in 2012 (2.5), 2008 (2), 2004 (2.13) and 2000 (3.)

      'Diluted'

      Before a ball had even been kicked, this year's tournament was being derided by one of its former champions -- United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
      "I almost think you have more quality in this Copa America than you have with a diluted kind of 24-team version of the European Championship," the German, who lifted the trophy in 1996, told reporters last month.
      He was speaking in the run-up to the 16-team South American showpiece, whose centenary edition also kicked off this month, hosted by the U.S.
      His views echoed those of his successor as Germany coach, Joachim Loew, who is most rare in being a protagonist to have actually spoken out against the Euros' enlargement.
      "The sporting worth of each game and also the overall competition decreases," the 2014 World Cup winner told the German Football Association (DFB) website in 2014.
      Of course, the flipside of the expanded Euros is that more middle-ranked teams have had the chance to make it through, and the five first-time finalists -- Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales -- are unlikely to care too much about any reduction in quality.

      Moving the goalposts

      One of the joys of previous Euros was that Germany, say, could meet fellow big guns like England, Spain, France or Netherlands in the group stages when the pressure of a knockout match was off -- so providing a more open game.
      In 2012, all four teams in the Germans' group were then ranked in FIFA's top 10 (Denmark, Netherlands and Portugal being the others) while there were also heavyweight clashes between France and England in one group, Spain and Italy in another.
      Meanwhile, three top-10 teams -- France, Italy, Netherlands -- were grouped together in 2008.
      Mouth-watering stuff it may have been for many, but this time around there is just one group clash between two teams in the top 10 -- which comes, surprisingly, in Group F where eighth-ranked Portugal meets Austria, 10th.
      "At the end, it will be an elite competition," new Bayern Munich coach Carlo Ancelotti told CNN.
      "It's less competitive at the beginning but it will be really competitive at the end -- when France, Spain and Germany will be the teams that have the possibility to win," said the former Italy international, who played at Euro '88.
      Meanwhile, Mendieta believes the greater number of games being played may help some smaller teams to progress.
      "Football is becoming more physical and we see how demanding games now are," the former Valencia star says.
      "So that might give chances to other teams whose players have played less games in their season.
      "It's always great to represent your country in such a great atmosphere and you just forget about the fact you've played a long season. But your body has been under a lot of pressure and effort for a long time and does not respond as your brain would like it to."

      Missing in action

      The irony is that former UEFA president Michel Platini, who is now serving a four-year ban from football on corruption charges he denies, isn't officially welcomed at Euro 2016.
      The Frenchman drove through the expansion, even if it was initially mooted by both the Republic of Ireland (which qualified for France) and Scotland (which didn't.)
      UEFA cited the previously-mentioned opportunity for more middle-ranked teams when the decision to expand was announced in 2008, but was that the bottom line?
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      Or was it the following -- as outlined by the UEFA General Secretary when speaking to the organization's official website upon the day of the expansion vote?
      "National team football is unbeatable in terms of TV rankings and the interest that it generates -- why not increase the number of teams?" David Taylor said.
      "National associations will benefit, and football will benefit."
      They certainly will, since all UEFA members will receive increased revenue from the centralized TV rights -- more games means more advertising, which means more money for one and all.
      This might explain why 51 of UEFA's then 54 members voted to enlarge the competition, with England and Germany among the two to vote against.
      Eight years ago, UEFA said the European Championship could easily accept eight more teams without affecting the technical level.
      Over the new few weeks, and years, you can be the judge.