The European Football Championship 2016: Give Small Nations a Chance?

These are trying times from Trump to Farage. What better route to escapism than watching football? Yet, even watching the European Cup in France there is a lot of moaning. UEFA dared to increase the number of teams. How could they? Football is ruled by an iron cast rules of rules except when profit making is at stake. Hence enter UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament to 24 teams. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Graph 1 shows that both the World and European Cups have been gradually expanded over time.


This has drawn a lot of criticisms. Some people argue that the ‘minnows’ only know how to defend and the number of goals per tournament drops. I am not sure whether this is the real reason, goals per tournament indeed drop over time, but so be it.

The bigger nations, in particular, moan that they have to play against these tiny nations. (And some of them even dare to win or draw with them.) Moreover, the draw has produced a quirky pairing in the knock-out stage of the tournament. In the upper half there is only countries with no World or European Cup titles, in the bottom half there are all the favourites. Arguably, this was in a large part accidental (why did Spain loose against Croatia?), and most of the problems of large countries’ teams are home-born. But, hey, why would facts ever should keep us from complaining.

More importantly, in the periphery from Iceland to Hungary the new system has seen waves of euphoria. And once Albania’s mood has settled they see that they have far more achieved, despite having been kicked out at the last breath of the group stage.

So it all seems fair and square: UEFA is helping the little nations. But is this true?

Yes and no. I think expanding the number of teams, and hence the number of matches a team needs to win to become champion works rather in favour of larger countries. Just think of it: the European Cups have produced 9 winners in 14 tournaments, the World Cups 8 in 20. World Cups have been dominated by a lucky few, relatively big countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany,…). Just like in national leagues it seems to be increasingly difficult to break these ranks.

The European Cups are (were?) different. You had the Czechoslovak penalty kings in 1976, Danish dynamite in 1992 and Rehakles’ Greek style of catenaccio in 2004. Small nations can win this tournament. To be fair, in some World Cups smaller nations were just unlucky or unfairly treated (the Netherlands in 1978?). But it is still intriguing to ask what makes the differences between European and World Cups.

Well you might say it’s just Argentina and Brazil, but I think a key difference is the number of teams participating which has expanded in the World Cup much earlier.

Why should this matter? The more teams the less likely become upsets. If big (and wealthy?) countries on average are more likely to win, more matches mean the odds turn against small countries. I hasten to add that it is for sure not enough to be a large country to win a cup, just ask the US. But it might be hard for smaller countries to break through.



The graphs 2 and 3 illustrate this. They show how the number of teams ‘correlates’ with either the size of the cup winner’s GDP or its population (both in natural logarithms to compress the enormous differences between countries.) We see that for all cups the more teams there are, the larger, on average the winner will be. This is clearly no proof. There is a time trend in both data, and there is a lot of variation. But it is also not implausible to assume that more matches means less surprises.

Maybe this year will be different, given the draw of the knock-out stage. Maybe it won’t. But it might well mean that in the future, we see more underdogs participating while the top prize still goes to the usual suspects. But the romantic in me hopes I am wrong.


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