By Liviu Bird
The UEFA European Championship competes with the FIFA World Cup to be the best national team tournament around these days. An expanded, 24-team field will compete for the Henri Delaunay Trophy in the namesake’s home nation of France in two summers.
The journey to the final tournament begins on Sunday, as UEFA draws the nine qualification groups in an event in Nice, France. The format is similar to that of any other international draw, with teams grouped into pots based on their UEFA coefficients.
All 53 European nations besides France will be involved in the draw, comprising eight groups of six teams and one group of five. France will be allocated to the group of five and play friendlies against the teams in that group.
As such, France is the first host nation of a major competition to participate in its qualifiers, although the games will not count in the standings for either team involved in those matches, and France has automatically qualified for the final tournament.
The new regulation was put in place to eliminate the usual difficulty host nations have of arranging friendlies against high-level opposition from the same confederation during qualification cycles.
It works out because UEFA has an even number of teams, although critics have been quick to point out that the new “centralized friendlies” directly benefit UEFA president Michel Platini’s former national team.
Here are the other 53 teams’ seedings for the draw:
Pot 1: Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Pot 2: Ukraine, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Republic of Ireland
Pot 3: Serbia, Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Norway, Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Poland
Pot 4: Montenegro, Armenia, Scotland, Finland, Latvia, Wales, Bulgaria, Estonia, Belarus
Pot 5: Iceland, Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania, Moldova, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus
Pot 6: Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar
A couple of caveats exist in the draw to allow for television audience and political situations: England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands will be in six-team groups because of larger potential television attention. Neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia will be separated in the draw, as will UEFA newcomers Gibraltar and Spain.
Also new to the 2016 edition of the tournament is the qualifying schedule format. Platini has championed what he calls the “Week of Football,” which will see qualifiers take place across a three-day window each match day.
The idea is maximizing each game’s audience instead of having every team play at the same time, which limits viewing options. For example, all but two of the opening qualifiers for the 2012 tournament were played Sept. 3, 2010. This time, those first matches will be scheduled Sept. 7, 8, or 9.
“This means fans of European football around the world can watch more action than ever before. They will love it,” Platini told media. “The proposal of a ‘Week of Football’ was approved by UEFA in 2011, and we decided right away that we wanted to increase the exposure of national team football.”