When UEFA decided to expand the Euros to 24 teams, there was a lot of backlash. It would ruin qualifying, a lot of people screamed, because it would be too easy for too many teams to get in. Well, it didn't do that and just ask the Netherlands how easy it was to get in. Others questioned whether it would take the drama out of the group stage, and if having third place teams advance to the round of 16 would cause problems.
Those concerns might be valid.
Now that we're in the knockout stages, the 24-team format doesn't really affect much. Sure, there's a round for 16 now, but nobody is going to have issue with eight extra matches in a straightforward bracket.
The real consternation came in the group stage. And with the first 24-team Euro group stage now in the rearview mirror, it's time to ask: Was the format change for the better?
There were some pretty clear downsides. Notably, the awkward final group stage matches where everyone had to do math to guess what would put teams in position to advance as a third place team. And then teams who were lucky enough to play on the last day of the group stage knew exactly what would put them through, giving them a massive advantage.
Making it so third place teams could advance also took some of the urgency and drama out of the early matches in the tournament. Teams didn't really have their lines on the line early, as evidenced by two teams advancing with three points.
Besides that, the group stage went spectacularly. And part of that was due to the expanded format.
While having third place teams advance hurt the tournament in some respects, it also kept more teams in competition and set up some more meaningful late-group stage matches.
Bringing more teams to the Euros also got a handful of Cinderellas into the tournament, too. While some of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Albania, Wales and Hungary may have qualified regardless, having them all in meant that there were feel-good stories all around. Five of those teams made good on their opportunities, too, booking spots in the knockout stages.
Without the 24 teams, we wouldn't have had a 40-year-old goalkeeper in sweatpants, Northern Ireland fans stealing our hearts, the thrill of Albania's first goal at a major tournament, Gareth Bale's brilliance or an Iceland announcer absolutely losing his mind.
More than anything, though, the 24-team Euros meant that there was more soccer than ever before. The expanded format was worth an extra 12 matches in the group stage alone, and will count for eight more in the knockout stages. It's how we're going to get Croatia vs. Portugal and Germany vs. Slovakia.
A 24-team format isn't perfect by any means. There are clear downsides. But it's tough to argue that it hasn't been a smashing success. There are more stories, more drama and, most of all, more soccer.
You've been a blast, 24-team Euros. And we're only through the group stage. It only gets better from here.
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