Euro 2024 and the lopsided draw affecting which teams are considered likely finalists

There is a reason why, at the very moment Gareth Southgate and his players were being insulted and having plastic cups thrown at them in Cologne on Tuesday, all the major British bookmakers drastically cut their odds on England winning the 2024 European Championship.

It had nothing to do with a sudden wave of optimism or a flurry of gambling activity. After all, who would put money aside for an England win after that?

It was the way the tournament started to take shape: England’s odds were reduced, as were Italy, Austria and Switzerland. The chances of French, Spanish, German or Portuguese glory declined accordingly.

If it were a free draw after the group stage, as happens in European club competition, it would be difficult to look beyond Spain, Germany, Portugal and – no matter how poorly they have played so far – the pre-tournament favourites, France.

But the path was predetermined. The knockout bracket appeared out of balance before a ball was kicked. The situation has become even more unbalanced with France’s failure to win their group, meaning they join Spain, Germany, Portugal and Denmark in the top half of the group. If Belgium were to finish second or third in Group E, they could end up there too.

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On paper, the bottom quarter of the table looks reasonably strong: Switzerland play Italy in Berlin on Saturday; England face a third-placed team on Sunday (the Netherlands, quite feasibly). But Switzerland, Italy and England each won one game in the group stage. Add the Netherlands (or whoever finishes third in Group E – Romania, Belgium, Slovakia or Ukraine) and it becomes four wins from a possible twelve.

To make this clear, in the bottom quarter of the draw a team that has won just once in the group stage will reach the semi-finals – where the worst-case scenario would mean facing Austria, Belgium or the Netherlands. The most likely semi-final permutations in the other half of the draw could be Spain or Germany versus Portugal or France.

Southgate was told on Tuesday, after a terrible 0-0 draw with Slovenia, that England might have been lucky with the way the knockout stages are developing. “We shouldn’t be tempted by which half of the draw,” the manager told ITV Sport. “We have to take it step by step. Tonight there was an improvement. We have to improve to win the next round.”

At his post-match press conference it was made clear to him that England had ended up at the opposite end of the match from Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. “We have enormous respect for all the teams you have mentioned, but there are also some very good teams on our side of the draw,” he said.

Still not equivalent. As with the 2018 World Cup, fortune smiles on England and all the other teams that have ended up on that side of the table – not least Austria, who have the right to claim that by finishing ahead of France and the Netherlands end, have made their own luck.

In 2018, five of the six highest ranked teams in the knockout stages (Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Argentina and France) finished on one side of the draw, while the other half consisted of Spain (who had won only one of their matches ). three group matches), Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Colombia and England.

That World Cup was widely regarded as Belgium’s best chance of winning a major tournament, with so many of their ‘golden generation’ players at or near the peak of their powers. But they paid a heavy price for winning Group G, beating Japan and Brazil before losing to France in the semi-finals. The price for England finishing second to Belgium in their group was a place on the softer side of the draw, which led to them beating Colombia and Sweden before beating Croatia in the semi-finals.

Euro 2016 brought a similar imbalance. Italy excelled in the group stages under Antonio Conte, but their prize for winning Group E would be placed at the tougher end of the draw. They defeated Spain 2–0, but lost to Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals. Germany, in turn, lost to host country France in the semi-finals. On the other hand, Portugal – who had secured third place in Group F by drawing with Iceland, Austria and Hungary – reached the final by beating Croatia in the round of 16, Poland in the quarter-final and Wales in the semi-final.

Some competitions are based on a free draw, such as the FA Cup. Others, like the NFL or NBA, see teams ranked by their regular-season record, which should theoretically put the two strongest teams in both conferences on opposite sides of the draw.

International football competitions – including the World Cup, the European Championship, the Copa America, the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup – do not work this way. From the moment the draw takes place, it is predetermined: the winner of group A will play against the number two of group B, the winner of group C will play against the number two of group D and so on.

The draw for the group stage has been seeded, but teams will be assigned to each group through a random draw, raising the possibility of the knockout round ending lopsided. Because the tournaments are condensed into a four or five week period, with the matches being played in the host country, it is felt to be helpful to have a predetermined structure for planning, travel and ensuring that each team gets adequate rest has between matches.

There are still inconsistencies. Austria will have a seven-day break between the end of the group matches on Tuesday and the first knockout round next Tuesday, while their Spanish opponents in the round of 16 (yet to be determined) have had just four days’ rest.

Everything about knockout football lends itself to variety. But it can be predicted with some confidence that a team that performed poorly at the 2024 European Championship will reach the semi-finals or possibly the final. After a difficult group stage, England, Switzerland, Italy and others had a soft landing. It could even be a springboard for one of them.

(Top photo: Andreas Gora/Picture Alliance via Getty Images))

The New York Times

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