Federal Football: Could Euro 2020 Serve as the Blueprint For Future European Championships?
Euro 2020 will be a pan-continental tournament. Could the federal model work in the long term, or is it impossibly flawed?
EPA Images/Sergey Dolzhenko
Though Michel Platini claimed in 2013 that Euro 2020 would be a "romantic" one-off event – a special, pan-continental tournament to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships – the reality seems rather more prosaic. With the competition expanded to a 24-team format from this year onwards, the cost of hosting the Euros is now far greater than it once was. This summer's contest in France will span a full 30 days, running for just over a week longer than its predecessors. With a whopping 51 games to be played, France has been forced to spend €1.6bn on building, renovating and modernising stadiums alone. The final bill for the tournament will be astronomical.
The price of hosting hundreds of thousands of fans for so long a time is practically punitive and, as such, it's hardly surprising that so few countries declared a firm interest in hosting the 2020 event. Turkey were the only semi-viable bidder, and their proposals were lukewarm at best. In uncertain economic times for Europe, there are few countries that are willing to take on the massive financial burden of the new-look championships. Euro 2020 is a pan-continental tournament out of necessity. As is ever the case with modern football, romance simply doesn't come into it.
Though several countries are said to be preparing bids for Euro 2024, their interest will surely be dependent on economic developments over the next few years, as well as the fiscal legacy of Euro 2016 in France. At present, the plan seems to be to return the European Championships to a national setting, but there's no guarantee that enthusiasm for hosting the tournament will increase. If the countries that bid to host Euro 2024 are as half-hearted in their proposals as their 2020 counterparts, it's entirely feasible that UEFA's bureaucracy might start to see the pan-continental format as the future of the competition. So could the Euros become federal, or is multi-state hosting unworkable in the long-term?
With a breakaway European Super League for the biggest clubs across the continent sporadically mooted, the concept of federalised football is at the forefront of many fans' minds. While the idea is overwhelmingly unpopular – it would be the death of club football as we know it, and lead to the inexorable decline of domestic competitions – that's down to a desire to protect the heritage of league football rather than a fundamental opposition to federalisation in the game. International teams are not community assets, they are not beholden to season-ticket holders and they do not reflect a local identity; a pan-continental tournament is not a threat to their selfhood in the way it is a threat to the selfhood of a football domestic club. In that sense, it's hard to see the problem with a federalised international competition.
So why is there a creeping feeling that people do, in fact, take issue with the Euros becoming pan-continental?
For some of the smaller footballing nations who have been allocated matches at Euro 2020, a federal competition might seem like a good thing. Azerbaijan, Hungary and Romania – all of whom have successfully bid for group-stage games – would be highly unlikely to win the right to host the tournament on their own. Putting aside the questionable ethics of giving matches to a country with Azerbaijan's appalling human rights record, the principle of sharing hosting rights amongst nations who would otherwise miss out seems equitable enough. The reality of the situation is very different, however.
First and foremost, the pan-continental format throws up a series of logistical issues for fans. With Euro 2020's group stage matches being played in 13 countries, matchday supporters are inevitably going to have to trek across vast swathes of Europe to follow their national teams. The quarter-finals are being held in Baku, Munich, Rome and Saint Petersburg, with the semis and the final itself played at Wembley. That could see fans forced to cover huge distances, racking up considerable air miles in the process. If that's supremely inconvenient, it's also bound to make Euro 2020 the least environmentally friendly championship that Europe has ever known.
The pan-continental format shows little concern for supporter satisfaction, doubtlessly because television audiences are infinitely more important to UEFA and its sponsors. With the cost of travelling to far-flung venues likely to be eye-watering, the price of hosting an expanded tournament has essentially been handed down to matchday fans. It's hard to imagine supporters getting too excited about a long flight to Baku – just over 1,650 miles away from its nearest sister venue – nor about securing the requisite visas to visit Russia for the sake of a single football match.
Supporters are used to being shat on from a great height by football's administrators and bureaucrats, and a pan-continental tournament is only another manifestation of the same trend. On top of the expense and inconvenience, there's also a sense in which fans' experiences of the competition will be fundamentally diminished by the federal format. The cohesion and character of a national – or even regional – contest is part of the fun. To federalise the Euros would be to strip individual tournaments of their distinctive personality.
Still, in an increasingly sanitised, commercial sport, preserving the romance of the national tournament is the last of UEFA's priorities.