Euro 2016's rise of minnows vindicating UEFA's expansion decision
It was, to borrow phrases from headlines, "Michel Platini's mad 24-team expansion plan," "a 24-team nightmare" and "bloated, protracted and boring." It is safe to say that the prospect of a bigger European Championships did not necessarily fill everyone with delight.
And yet, 24 games into this continent's first 24-team championship, its strength in depth has been perhaps its finest feature. Previous European Championships came with the promise of high-class teams clashing, with crucial consequences, right from the off. This has been different. It has not been about quality as much as equality.
The notion that a larger competition would admit substandard teams and create mismatches has been disproved. After everyone has played twice, only Albania, Ukraine and Turkey are yet to take a point. Only Spain, against Turkey, and Belgium, in defeating the Republic of Ireland, have scored three goals in a game; they are also the lone teams to lead by more than a solitary goal at the 85th-minute mark. Every other match has remained in the balance into the closing stages. So far Euro 2016 has been more competitive than Euro 2012 was at the same stage: by then Russia had already demolished the Czech Republic 4-1 and Spain had thrashed the Republic of Ireland 4-0. Whether due to attacking impotence or defensive improvements, the games in France have been closer.
The absence of similarly emphatic victories could be attributed to the comparatively disappointing displays by some of Europe's premier match winners. Many of the supposed stars of Euro 2016 -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Harry Kane, Eden Hazard -- have not lived up their billing.
But they have ceded the limelight to the minnows. The underdogs have stepped into the void, giving Euro 2016 an identity and an excitement it might otherwise have lacked. The most heart-warming tales have come from teams who were strangers to this stage: Iceland, in their first-ever major tournament, drew with Portugal; Northern Ireland, in their first-ever European Championships, beat Ukraine; Hungary, in their first since 1972, defeated Austria.
The eventual tale will probably be one where a superpower prevails in the final in Paris. Thus far, however, the favourites have discovered little is easy. Portugal arrived in France ranked as the world's eighth-best team and Europe's fourth finest; they were held by a side from a country of just 330,000, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament. Austria were officially Europe's fifth-best team and ranked in the top 10 in the international game; they lost to a Hungary side touted as the worst at Euro 2016. To illustrate how unlikely that was, 12 of Bernd Storck's team play in the Hungarian top flight, which UEFA's coefficients place 35th, below the Liechtenstein league.
Euro 2016's most stirring moments have been triumphs of teamwork, shows of spirit, which everyone can relate to. Spain may have produced stellar examples of passing movements, but there is something understandable about more limited players performing as a group. These players use organisation and determination to compensate for individual deficiencies. They display resolve and resilience to become greater than the sum of their parts. It is the essence of team sport.
In the process, it has produced cult heroes from unlikely individuals: Hannes Halldorsson, Eurovision Song Contest video director and Icelandic goalkeeper who frustrated the triple Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo; Hal Robson-Kanu, released by Reading but scorer of Wales' first winner in a major tournament since 1958; Gareth McAuley, the Northern Irishman who spent three years working in technical drawing while playing part-time football and who, nearer 37 than 36, became the second-oldest scorer in European Championship history; Gabor Kiraly, the tournament's oldest-ever player, complete with his scruffy tracksuit trousers; his Hungary teammate Adam Szalai, the striker who went 40 games and 18 months without a goal before scoring against neighbours Austria.
Euro 2016 has found its soul in such men. Its expansion may have seemed a corporate exercise in moneymaking, introduced for diplomatic rather than footballing reasons to give Europe's mid-ranking members more of a chance of tournament football. There may be a truth to that, too, but there have been benefits nonetheless. And while some may argue that Northern Ireland won their qualifying group -- a feat that, four years earlier, would have guaranteed direct entry to the 16-team Euro 2012 -- it is nevertheless pertinent that the change to ensure at least two teams from each qualifying group went to France offered encouragement that the lesser lights did not have in previous campaigns. The incentive was greater, the opportunity more apparent.
And while it seemed the change in format would result in a procession to France for the major nations, that was not the case. The Netherlands injected drama into the qualifying campaign with their ineptitude, just as Iceland began their compelling rise with 2014 wins against Turkey and the Dutch. They were tweaking the nose of favourites long before they encountered a graceless Ronaldo.
They have come to define this expanded competition. Bigger might not be better, but it is certainly different. And thus far, those differences have been the most compelling part of Euro 2016.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.