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Soccer-Euros expansion leaves drama-lite qualifying for big nations

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By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) – As qualifying for Euro 2024 resumes on Friday, an unintended consequence of the expansion to 24 teams is quickly becoming apparent, with six teams already given at least a 95% chance of making it to Germany with only two rounds of matches played.

With 20 teams qualifying automatically as the top two in each group and another three via playoffs, along with hosts Germany, a huge swathe of the event’s jeopardy has been removed at the top end.

Research simulation by data company Nielsen Gracenote predicts that Switzerland (98% chance of reaching Euro 2024 without playoffs), Portugal (98%), France (98%), England (97%), Belgium (97%) and Serbia (96%) already have one foot in the finals despite still having the vast majority of their qualifiers to play.

Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, and the Netherlands are also expected to progress, all having over an 80% chance of direct qualification despite losing or drawing one of their opening games, as are Hungary, who have played one game.

Another five teams have at least an 80% chance of finishing in the top two of their groups. Gracenote predicts the 20 most likely automatic qualifiers to be Switzerland, Portugal, France, England, Belgium, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Scotland, Romania, Italy, Wales, Slovenia, Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is a very different story to the tense campaigns that preceded the tournament when it comprised four teams up to 1980, when it expanded to eight, and 16 from 1996 until the 2021 edition when it first moved to 24. Qualifying matches were huge occasions, where one slip could and did cause a pedigree team to miss out.

Despite being the reigning champions, Italy failed to qualify in 1972 and also missed 76, 84, when they were world champions, and 92. It was the same situation for France who missed out in 88 following their 1984 triumph, which itself was a rare highlight coming after five successive failures to qualify from 64-80.

England missed 72, 76 and 84 while the Netherlands, despite being near the peak of their powers, failed to qualify in 1972 and again in 84 – four years before winning it.

Belgium might line up as a European big name these days but they went 28 years without earning qualification on the pitch as they missed out in six out of seven editions from 1988-2012, making 2000 only as joint hosts.

Now, the expected smooth progress of the continent’s heavyweights, along with a few upwardly mobile cruiserweights, means that the excitement shifts down a level to countries who have traditionally never or rarely had a realistic hope of making the finals, which is what happened for debutants Finland and North Macedonia at Euro 2020.

Gracenote suggests that if their “top 20” qualify, the most likely 12 to make the playoffs are Kazakhstan, Georgia, Greece, Estonia, Israel, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Norway, Finland, Ireland and Albania.

The qualification picture is also clouded somewhat by the impact of the Nations League, which reaches its conclusion this week.

“The 12 teams that won their Nations League A, B or C groups – Netherlands, Croatia, Spain, Italy, Israel, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Scotland, Georgia, Greece, Turkey and Kazakhstan – are guaranteed a playoff place for the last three spots at Euro 2024 if they don’t finish in the top two of their qualifying groups,” said Simon Gleave, head of sports analysis at Nielsen’s Gracenote.

“Kazakhstan (93%), Georgia (85%) and Greece (85%) have a very high chance of participating in the playoffs due to being both group winners in Nations League group C and having slim chances of finishing in the top two of their qualifying groups. Nations League group D’s top team Estonia have an 82% chance of playing in the Path A playoffs for Euro 2024.”

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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