Last week's decision to hold the 2020 European Football Championship in cities across Europe has brought UEFA, European soccer's governing body, a level of scorn typically reserved for bad calls, divers, and FIFA.
The Euros, like the World Cup, can be a source of national pride (and shame and sorrow, of course) and the competition has traditionally been staged that way. Since it began in 1958, teams, staff and thousands of supporters have converged on one or two countries for a month: Portugal in 2004, Austria and Switzerland in 2008, Poland and Ukraine in 2012. The host countries become synonymous with the tournament itself, putting a cultural stamp on the games and defining their social atmosphere.
The new plan would see teams playing in as many as a dozen different cities across Europe. UEFA president Michel Platini has called it a "Euro for Europe," and "a big party on the Continent."
UEFA may indeed be clueless. Like FIFA, the soccer association has yet to employ goal-line technology, an annual source of embarrassment and outrage, and the one-off 2020 system was hardly the result of a master plan, but rather a last-minute solution after a disappointing bid process yielded a three-way choice between Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales; Turkey; and Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Still, UEFA may have stumbled onto a great idea here despite itself. The European Championship, like the Olympics and the World Cup, requires its hosts to make massive investments in infrastructure. The value of such competitions, with their immediate benefits and deferred costs, is a matter of debate, particularly when it comes to the oft-unused sporting facilities. Portugal, the Euro's last solo host, in 2004, spent $1 billion on ten new stadiums that nearly bankrupted the clubs that inherited them. In 2012, co-hosts Poland and Ukraine each spent over one percent of GDP preparing for the competition, the total investment over $45 billion.
Modernizing roads, airports and train stations is one of the better investments a country can make, but at the moment, an international sporting event looks like an awfully big expenditure. Only one country -- Turkey -- had a Euro 2020 bid of its own among the last three. For the first time, a three-way entry was in serious consideration. Behind such tepid enthusiasm lies financial worry: countries are reluctant to spend so much money alone.
Hopefully, the new format will see improvements in transportation and facilities spread out among cities in a half-dozen countries, easing the financial burden, dividing the benefits, and opening up the scope of the competition. For the first time we could see matches of huge importance in Sofia, Dublin, Tallinn, Copenhagen, or other cities in small countries. By splitting the costs into more manageable portions, the Euro for Europe gives smaller countries a chance to compete. (Equally possible, sadly, with UEFA at the helm, would be the prospect of the tournament's games all being held in Madrid, Paris, Berlin and London.)
Could it also dilute the spirit of the event? Certainly, things will be different. But not necessarily less fun, or more difficult, for traveling supporters. The territory covered by last summer's hosts, Poland and Ukraine, was equal to most of Western Europe. Countries were slow to claim their portion of allocated tickets, citing the costs of traveling. Games were generally not well-attended.
Since most of Europe has open borders, travel between countries is as easy as within them. Regional competitions could be great: Benelux and the Rhine Valley. The Balkans. Scandinavia.
Even better, games could be organized to place fans in closer proximity to their locations. UEFA could pick a geographically diverse range of historically underrepresented cities for each group stage, two cities for the quarterfinals and semifinals, and one city for the championship.
Take Euro 2012. Spain, Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland could have played their group stage games in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a city quickly coming into its own. It's geographically convenient for three of the four, and unlikely to host any major international competition anytime soon in the national model -- Slovenia's population is one-quarter that of Greater London.
England, France, Ukraine and Sweden could have done the same in Edinburgh. Germany, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands could have played in Cardiff. Greece, Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic could have played in Budapest or Bratislava. And so on.
For the smaller number of people who attend the later stages of the tournament, a further trip would be in order. But the mileage would be no greater than that required for thousands of supporters who follow their clubs around Europe in the Champions League, or for those who will attend the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. (The distance between Manaus, deep in the Amazon Basin, and Porto Alegre, near the Uruguay border, is longer than that between Madrid and St. Petersburg.)
The advantages of such a situation aren't just economic for the hosts and visitors alike. Making it easier for the majority of fans to attend games would improve the quality of the tournament. A truly neutral venue is the bane of an exciting match.
Top image: Kacper Pempel/Reuters.