This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
As Martin Škrtel blocked yet another scuffed effort from 18 yards and it became clear that England would be limping out of Group B in second place, a nation began to vent its ire. This took the form of a few recurring complaints: hubris after the win against Wales, Jack Wilshere's lack of match fitness, and dead ball delivery poor enough to make you consider knocking it all on the head and becoming a rugby fan. All these things contributed to Monday's drab affair, but England were ultimately victims of Euro 2016's logistical minutiae. The new format meant that Slovakia played for a point, which would have seen them eliminated from all previous iterations of the tournament.
UEFA's 24-team experiment was always going to affect the group stage most but, now that it's over, we can reflect on who's won out of the decision to expand the competition and who joins Our Brave Boys in the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' corner.
Cast your mind back to the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016. Quite fun really, wasn't it? That feeling of emptiness usually so synonymous with waking up on the Saturday of an international weekend was conspicuous by its absence, as droves of us bought into the Icelandic, Northern Irish and Albanian dreams. Conventional wisdom dictates that the extra eight places on offer awoke an until-then latent sense of belief in such sides, and the forgiving group stage set-up has seen this trend continue. That sense of hope from the qualifying rounds has since been replaced with conservatism in the tournament proper, as teams realised that three draws could be enough to see them through to the second round.
Or so the theory goes. Really, though, unless you've subscribed to the 'diluting the quality' argument since the beginning, isn't it a bit churlish to now go all Cristiano Ronaldo on the supposed lesser nations after a few drab games? To do so is to side with the Mark Lawrensons and Alan Greens of this world, people who somehow manage to make being paid to watch football sound about as enjoyable as filing your tax returns. More to the point, though, it's worth asking ourselves who's actually at fault for this perceived lack of entertainment. Sure, Albania's performances might not live long in the memory for most, but they still managed to achieve their first ever win at a tournament. Maybe some of us need to check our big team privilege, and consider how many talking points we'd really have from the group stage if it weren't for Hungary, Wales, Iceland and Michael McGovern.
Germany have scored three goals in as many matches, France have flattered to deceive and England have been, well, England. A few specific matches aside, it's hard to make an argument that the tournament is weaker in terms of excitement for the supposedly bloated format. A lot has been made of the lack of goals but, even if you don't agree with Annibale Frossi's view that 0-0 is the perfect result, there's something in the argument that goals aren't the be-all and end-all in terms of entertainment.
The real thrill of the Euros so far has been the tournament's unpredictability and the distinct lack of a gulf in class between most sides, which looks set to continue as the competition progresses. The draw has opened up nicely from a neutral's perspective, with at least a few unfancied nations set to go deep into the tournament and the guaranteed departure of a few bookies' favourites before the latter stages. Too often major competitions, both at club and international level, feel geared towards looking after the big sides and assuring them of safe passage to the final. Euro 2016, by contrast, has a genuine tournament feel.
Even if you've been unimpressed by the football on show so far, there's no need to throw your toys out of the pram. Group stage moaning seems to happen every two years: if it's not lamentation over the lack of goals or getting worked up about vuvuzelas, it's inconsequential mutterings about the aerodynamics of the Jabulani. The group stages are normally nothing more than a formality, a footnote on the orgy of extra-time, glory and heartache that is the knockout phase. They're always slightly long-winded as teams get into gear and find some sort of rhythm. Generally speaking, though, they're not much of an indicator of how enjoyable the rest of the tournament will be.
Italy are perhaps the only team who'll feel truly hard done by so far. Who can blame them? They're one of only two group winners to meet a second place side and – wouldn't you just know it? – they've gone and drawn Spain. In 1994, though, the Azzurri were beneficiaries of the lucky loser system, as they finished third in their World Cup group before making it all the way to the final. These things even themselves out over the course of a 22-year period, clearly.
The system isn't perfect, but the fact that we've already seen some nations breaking new ground, achieving milestones and having the greatest days and nights in their recent histories surely means it's worth persevering with. It might be just the beginning, too, if new FIFA president Gianni Infantino gets his way and expands the World Cup to 40 teams from 2026. The logic is pretty irrefutable: how are countries meant to develop if not by experiencing the game at the highest level? It might be a minor inconvenience for the boys' club of established tournament regulars, but it's a pretty hard argument to counter. And if it involves more football, well, that can only be a good thing.