Euro 2016 will be football's last great showcase
Euro, which begins Friday, has always been the World Cup's younger, slightly-more-put-together brother. What it lacks in global reach, it makes up for in quality, writes Cathal Kelly
The World Cup was first broadcast on television in 1954. The host, Switzerland, was paid about $3,000 for the rights.
They didn't televise the first halves of most matches. There was no choice in the games – you watched what they put on. Some contests were only shown days later in highlight format.
If you wanted to know what was happening, you had to be on the ground. Fans mattered then. They don't any more. They are window dressing for the world's biggest sports spectacles. As such, they can be supplied locally for free.
They won't be an issue in France. As you read this, all the matches for Euro 2016 should be sold out. Despite the usual threats and worries, 1.5 million people are expected to visit the country over the next month to attend games or to soak up the atmo.
If you are one of those lucky few, double-congratulations. You're not just about to see what one hopes will be a great soccer tournament. You're going to see the last great soccer tournament.
On a daily basis, they put a hundred thousand people in Berlin's Tiergarten to watch games during the 2006 World Cup. Sometimes double that.
They showed the matches on giant, suspended screens running down the Strasse Des 17. Juni at hundred-metre intervals. They sold a lot of beer. Nobody caused any trouble.
Most of these people were soccer tourists, both native and foreign. Outside the stadiums, this was the only place that it occurred to me that the event felt like fun.
That was my first World Cup. One could not help but be struck by how little average Germans cared about Germany's World Cup. Their team was not expected to do well (although, being German, it did). That nervous irritation infused the entire show. To most Germans you met, the World Cup seemed a great annoyance. Which, of course, it was.
Everybody likes the idea of putting on a World Cup or a Euro or an Olympics. Countries make that decision years out from the actual event. Once it rolls around – overbudget, underprepared, the country now roiling with irritation or worse and the natives fleeing town – everybody hates it. Vancouver was so much the recent exception that it proved the rule.
In the time since Germany 2006, things have deteriorated for the soccer tournament as an imaginative landscape.
South Africa was host of a World Cup of great vibrancy, and at suffocating cost to a nation that could ill-afford it. Brazil did likewise in 2014. The main difference between the two was that one was unpopular before it started, and the other unpopular only after. Both are thought of locally as financial fiascos.
The Euro has always been the World Cup's younger, slightly-more-put-together brother. What it lacks in global reach, it makes up for in quality. The secret was – emphasis on "was" – fewer and better teams.
They used to line up to hold it because it wasn't so much of a chore. Four or five national aspirants per tournament. Everyone on tenterhooks to see who'd win the right.
Euro 2016 had only three bidders. A joint bid by Norway and Sweden was scuppered mid-process when political leaders there realized that spending public money on stadiums could cost them their governments. France won almost by default.
This is one of only a handful of countries on Earth with the 10 required stadiums, all relatively modern and with massive seating capacities.
France didn't need to improve transportation infrastructure or add hotel inventory. You can take a train from any host city to any other host city in a few hours and at a reasonable price. The security systems and administrative know-how are already in place. Since no real money was spent, no one will lose any. UEFA will, as usual, make out like bandits. The TV rights alone have been sold for $1.5-billion.
This is a turnkey soccer tournament. And it is the last of its kind.
A few years ago, UEFA began tentatively exploring who might next hold the Euro. The only solid bidder was Turkey – a problematic solution on a variety of levels, and that was before Syria cratered. Since no one else had the money or the inclination, they saved themselves the trouble.
Euro 2020 will have no host country. Rather, it will be staged in 13 continental capitals – ranging from Bilbao to St. Petersburg. By that point, it's possible that 32 countries could qualify.
It really is a wonder how far this thing has fallen, and how quickly.
Euro 2000 was probably the best soccer tournament ever staged. Sixteen qualifiers. Hosts in Belgium and Netherlands that could not wait to greet their visitors. Soccer of the highest quality from start to finish.
Twenty years later, this will be something exclusively aimed at the private-jet set. Because who else is going to pay to watch a game in Bucharest one day, and then skip over to Glasgow the next? If not just the super-rich, then the exceedingly well off.
The Euro is becoming a tournament of two halves, the first of which is filler. How psyched are you for Switzerland-Albania or Hungary-Iceland? Exactly. Just imagine in coming years when you're getting Andorra v. Luxembourg.
The problem in major sports events is one of resurrection. They keep killing the golden goose, and the goose keeps rising from the dead.
South Africa was a PR disaster no one went to. But it made money. So they tried it again in Brazil. Ditto. So they'll try it again at Qatar 2022.
No one – underline those words – no one will go to that World Cup. Whether it's the distance, the 45C daily highs or the fact that it was built by a labour regime taking its ethical cues from the Pharoahs, Qatar will be bereft of visitors.
But it will still 'succeed' because all any of us will see of it is what we're shown on TV. You can green up a dozen patches in the grass in the desert. You can't see heat on television. And once they start playing, everyone will forget about slave labour.
Russia 2018 will be Qatar minus the charm. They have the experience.
The genius in the way Russia staged the Sochi Winter Olympics was that it was built as a sound stage. Up close, everything was cheap and shabby. Sitting in the media centre, you'd occasionally hear a loud crack and then a cheer would go up. Someone had snapped another arm off one of the comically flimsy chairs they'd given us. By the end of the Games, you were hard-pressed to find one with a complete set.
It was like that everywhere – doors that led into empty rooms, whole sections of backstage areas unfinished. You'd be standing at a live event thinking, "For this they paid $50-billion?" Then you'd watch the same venue on television, and it'd look great. Better than great. Amazing.
The Russians understood that sports have become an artificial event. Real fans are too much hassle. You have to house them, feed them, transport them, protect them and – worst of all – listen to their complaints. It's hardly worth the bother. So when no one came to Sochi, no one cared. That apathy was tangible.
That same spirit of anti-hospitality will infuse Russia 2018. That is, if we're not at war.
There are other wonderful tournaments staged – the African Cup of Nations, the Copa America, the women's World Cup.
But they cannot meet the level of worldwide interest and star quality that the Euro still has, if only for now. One might argue the World Cup has already lost it. Few would argue that it's about to.
So this is it. One more go-round to see what a proper soccer tournament looks like at ground level. This could be soccer's version of the Beatles at Shea Stadium – not quite the last show, but the last great one.
They're already putting on the dampeners. On Thursday, it was announced that no French bar or restaurant can put televisions outside to draw spectators. Too much of a security risk.
That's where soccer is being driven – back into homes, where people watch alone. All that matters is that they watch, that the ads get sold, that the schlock gets bought and that the TV money keeps growing. Who really cares whether anyone was there?
A while back, I talked to a few tall foreheads and futurists, trying to figure out what pro sports would look like in 50 years. Among their tips: the return of bloodsport (check); real-time gambling (check); virtual athletes (check).
One suggested that we'd have done away with live audiences by then. Too much trouble. Too attractive to terrorists. Much easier to build stadiums as sets in neutral territory and fly teams in. Perhaps a few of the super-rich might watch for a massive fee. All that matters is that it looks good on television.
I suspected he was right at the time. The thing I wonder about now is if it will take as long as 50 years.
Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Russia was hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and that Qatar would host the 2018 version. In fact, Russia is hosting in 2018, and Qatar in 2022. This version has been corrected.