England handed kind draw but must beware Euro 2024 trap
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A forgiving draw for England, an exciting one for Scotland and one other that stands above all else in terms of competitiveness.
Such is the nature of the modern 24-team Euros, where it is harder to get knocked out from the group stage, that all eyes are immediately drawn to that pool featuring Spain, Croatia, Italy and Albania.
That focus may allow England to stealthily and steadily build in the way they have made a habit of late, although everyone is of course looking to Gareth Southgate’s side and France as the favourites.
France’s group will be difficult to determine until the play-offs are completed in March, an element that adds a degree of absurdity for such a draw, to go with the – ahem – strange noises heard during the broadcast.
The groups don’t generate that much excitement for most. Even the grandeur of France vs Netherlands is diluted by the fact it won’t have the same consequence.
If that seems a little too dismissive of Slovenia, Denmark and Serbia, it is only down to England’s current strength. Southgate’s side have gone to another level since reaching the final of this competition in 2021, with that personified by Jude Bellingham. The reality is that nobody in the group gets near them in terms of quality. Denmark have dropped off considerably since England narrowly beat them in the semi-finals of Euro 2020, Serbia are awkward but not exactly imposing, and Slovenia should be eminently beatable.
It certainly didn’t raise eyebrows in the way Group B did, where the defending champions Italy will have to navigate Spain again. The only caveat there is the essence of tournament football. There is the danger that Albania are beaten by everybody, which should mean all of Spain, Croatia and Italy have sufficient points to get through.
That is the trouble with this asymmetrical competition, and why such a draw just doesn’t have the same importance as a World Cup anymore.
Only a third of the field will actually go out. Hence it’s hard to talk too much about what this draw means for the chances of particularly dangerous sides like Portugal, who do have an awkward group.
The flipside of that is it affords a greater number of smaller nations the chance to be involved, and none of this will dampen their excitement.
Albania’s coach Sylvinho, who used to play for Arsenal, was beaming as he walked around the Uefa lounge. He had joked to English media beforehand that “I hope to stay far away from you guys!”
Unlucky for him given who he did get, but also maybe inspiring. Scotland will very much feel the same. They have the worst possible opening game against the hosts but the fact it is the opening game of the whole tournament means they are involved in the sort of event that you can only be thrilled about. It may offer momentum for the evenly-matched games against Hungary and Switzerland. This is what it’s all about.
It just might take a while to feel that way given the odd timing of the draw.
If the sense was that most of the summer’s prospective audience was focused on the Premier League rather than this, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the scene around the Uefa hotel. That was the Atlantic, which overlooks the Elbe, and was used in the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. You can make your joke about that. It otherwise meant Uefa officials and the present legends like David Silva and Gianluigi Buffon were greeted by images of Pierce Brosnan and Teri Hatcher when they went to the toilet, with Bond tunes piped in.
It was a real who’s who in the Uefa lounge, despite the freezing weather playing havoc with travel plans. A lot of flights were cancelled. The Football Association delegation sat on the tarmac for two hours. New German manager Julian Nagelsmann’s solution to this was to drive 800km from Munich.
The morning’s executive committee meeting still ran relatively smoothly, with no real overriding themes. “It was quite boring,” in the words of one federation executive who rolled his eyes. The major decisions were on the expansion of the Women’s Champions League and the distribution of Euro 2024 prize money, with every participating team getting €9.25m.
That added a bit more edge for those play-off teams present. Many of the smaller nations subsequently went up to Uefa to literally beg for more money, as they lobbied for solidarity money to be increased. That is how some of this gets done.
The executive committee of course involves a presence from the biggest clubs, with European Club Association and Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser El-Khelaifi present and glad-handing the room. Just behind him, Dutch manager Ronald Koeman was sat quietly on his own until greeted warmly by David Silva, who was one of the legends conducting the draw.
His own country, who beat Italy in the 2012 final, now have one of the hardest groups. But the nature of this tournament means it may not be the hardest of routes when all is said and done.