Bigger is proving better at the first European Championship with 24 teams.

Only the most uncharitable would argue that tournament first-timers Wales, Northern Ireland, Albania and Iceland didn't more than earn their keep in the just-concluded group stage, with the last matches on Wednesday producing thrilling real-time fluctuations in who would play who next in the last 16.

One moment England seemed paired up with Portugal, the next it got Iceland. Albania looked like it might wriggle through but then didn't. The Irish were out, and the Turks were in, until Robbie Brady flipped their fortunes around with his headed winner for Ireland in the 85th minute against Italy. France looked on course to meet Northern Ireland but ended up with plain vanilla Ireland instead.

The big drawback of 24 teams is that reducing the field for the knockout round is like trying to jam a square peg into round hole: 24 into 16 doesn't fit naturally without formulas to fathom out which third-place teams would stay and which would go home. You needed a mathematical brain to track the process as dizzying as watching lottery balls before they drop, a football equivalent of David Bowie's song-writing technique of chopping up lyrics, mixing the snippets around and sticking them back together at random. Wacky, unpredictable and, because of that, quite entertaining.

Granted, the football of some of the so-called 'smaller' teams whose road to France was made easier by the tournament expansion has lacked polish. But that could be said of 'bigger' teams, too.

Yes, they were often tactically unadventurous, packing defenses and looking to hurt opponents with set-pieces and counter-attacks. In other words, they played to their strengths and masked weaknesses. That isn't a crime in football; if it was Jose Mourinho would be in handcuffs by now for bus-parking and Leicester City's Premier League title wouldn't have been celebrated as an underdog triumph of footballing realpolitik.

What they lacked in flair, 'smaller' teams more than made up for with pluck and guts. Their courage made them watchable and endearing. It brought welcome freshness to a sport where some of the biggest stars at times ooze can't-be-bothered ennui.

Only on the brink of elimination, in Portugal's last group match against Hungary, did Cristiano Ronaldo get truly stoked up by the major tournament experience — one of many for him — that tournament debutants like Wales' Gareth Bale clearly relished from the first whistle.

Slovakia didn't seem to want to win its last game against England, because one point from the goalless draw proved enough for it to advance. That cynicism aside, the new format didn't produce a glut of completely dead games. Only Ukraine went into its final match, against Poland, with the motivation-sapping knowledge that it was already eliminated.

So, no, adding eight teams hasn't been the equivalent of watering down fine wine. Besides, the wine wasn't always as fine as nostalgics of the old 16-team format like to pretend. Five of the 24 group matches at Euro 2008 finished 1-0; the first 24 games at the bigger Euro 2016 also saw five 1-0 results. Of those, just two involved first-time teams: Albania vs. Switzerland and Poland vs. Northern Ireland.

While UEFA's decision to expand was commercial and political — 20 additional matches bring more broadcasting revenue and more goodwill from smaller nations that couldn't readily qualify under the more elitist old system — that isn't the whole story. It also made more room for heart-winning underdogs, always a desired feature of sports, like Iceland, population 330,000, outperforming the likes of Russia.

Just as seeing France win Euro '84 awakened a young Thierry Henry, who went on to win the tournament in 2000 with Les Bleus, there will now be kids in Welsh valleys and on Belfast streets, in Tirana and Reykjavik, starting to believe that football is their calling, having had a Euro team to cheer on for the first time.

On a continent with centrifugal forces tugging at its seams, where decades of European post-World War II unity are being doubted and tested, a more inclusive and less exclusive European Championship helps to paper over the cracks. As much as they disagree, Europeans have fervently shown these past two weeks that they still share a passion for football.

For some, the tournament will only begin in earnest now, with the last 16.

"The party is starting!" declared the Thursday front page of L'Equipe, France's sports daily.

Clever printing on the back page made a new headline when the newspaper was unfolded: "Let the party start again!"

Spot on.

Think of it like a fine French meal. The main course is coming. The group stage was hors d'oeuvres.

Wouldn't you rather have both?

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester