When our lord and saviour Michel Platini announced the new and improved European Championship, with 24 teams qualifying from a possible 53 nations, they laughed.
Well they’re not laughing now. The qualifying process was previously a dull, drab procession where the best teams worked out their best eleven before a major tournament.
Now with the top two in every group automatically qualifying and the third place teams going into a playoff, there is almost no team who cannot realistically dream of reaching France 2016.
When Platini first announced it, like most of his announcements, it was greeted with widespread derision, and most claimed that this turned the qualification for the bigger teams from a formality into a procession.
When a mediocre England side squeezed past Switzerland away from home, it represented their greatest challenge of the group, and all but sealed their qualification, especially given their exemplary qualifying record.
Platini’s system was totally flawed, yet another nail in his crackpot coffin. England and other major European nations would increasingly play in front of crowds of 25,000, not 80,000, and national anthems echoing around empty seats would be the death knells of international football.
However, the very first round of games proved the detractors wrong. This opportunity to qualify, once in a lifetime for countries like Scotland, Iceland, Wales or Albania, appeared to have imbued them with new-found nationalistic lifeblood.
Out of nowhere, televisions were tuned to internationals, fans travelled in greater noise and number than ever before, and Platini’s ‘Week of Football’ featured six days of consequential competitive football.
National duty had been drifting towards a chore rather than a privilege: now players were fighting to be fit for a chance to help their country to a major tournament, and the cold Tuesday night in Podgorica was an honour again.
The spirit was matched by results: first Albania surprised Portugal in their own back yard, Northern Ireland went to Hungary and won, and the Czechs rolled over the Netherlands. Even Scotland nearly brought a point from the den of the world champions.
The next round of games produced more shocks, as Slovakia beat Spain, Poland humbled Germany, and Moldova held Russia. All of a sudden, we started looking forward to international breaks.
Consider what’s happening away from Group E; if we stopped tomorrow, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, the Ukraine and Germany would all require a play-off victory to qualify for the European Championship, while Israel, Wales, and Albania would all be automatically through to their first Euros ever.
The great challenge of the system will come when the tournament itself comes round. It should be the summit of football, and you have to hope that should a weaker team like Montenegro qualify (and some will) they will not find themselves out-classed in the group stage.
All we can hope is that like the qualifying, the adrenalin of the tournament lifts everyone to a higher standard, and we are delivered the festival of football to follow Brazil that Europe is crying out for.
Main image courtesy of beIN Sports via YouTube, with thanks.