The Euros expanded from 16 to 24 teams in 2016. This expansion and wonky format produced one of soccer’s most boring tournaments ever. That’s not an encouraging precedent for the World Cup, where an expansion to 40 teams is probable, not possible.
Expansion added eight teams. The 24-team format with third-place teams advancing made moving on easier. Instead of having to go for it to finish second, teams could hold the line for third. A single 1-0 win or a succession of draws could (and was) enough to send teams through. Portugal reached the knockout stage without beating Iceland, Hungary, or Austria in group play.
The format incentivized tight play. Not surprisingly, it produced it. Ambitious, attacking teams ran into parked buses. Euro 2016 produced just 2.12 goals per match, down from 2.45 at Euro 2012 and much lower than the 2.84 at Copa America. Dour, dour Portugal was a fitting winner.
Group play was notably worse than knockout play. Teams scored just 1.92 goals per match during Euro 2016 group play, compared to a more customary 2.46 goals per match (in 90 minutes) during knockout play.
Euro 2016 had the lowest average goal tally at the Euros since 1996 (2.06). It was lower than any previous World Cup, including the brutal 2010 South Africa (2.23) and Italia 1990 (2.21).
Italia 1990, for reference, produced Group F with England, Netherlands, Ireland, and Egypt. The six group matches produced seven goals and one combined win (England 1-0 Egypt). With a similar 24-team format, that group sent three teams to the knockout rounds. England came a missed penalty from “Portugal-ing” its way to the final.
Besides being boring, Euro 2016’s format exacerbated competitive disparity. Draws will vary. Teams in a 16 or 32-team tournament will be placed in easy groups and have softer knockout runs if they advance.
In the 24-team tournament, however, some winners received third-place opponents in the Round of 16. Others received second-place opponents. That could be the difference between playing Northern Ireland at that stage and Spain. Some second-place teams played other second-place teams. A few results going awry led to nearly every favorite winding up on one side of the bracket.
A 40-team World Cup beginning in 2026 almost undoubtedly means a similarly wonky knockout format, unless FIFA opts for an unwieldy-64 match group stage (same number of matches for the entire present tournament).
Expansion did provide superb storylines. Wales, in its first major tournament since 1958, reached the semifinals. Iceland, with its oft-noted population 300,000, upset England and reached the quarterfinals. But, expanding to the wonky format redefined what that means. Of course, giving smaller countries such as Wales and Iceland a shot is exactly why expansion is popular with member federations.
The Euros won’t make a sensible retreat back to 16. The eventual solution may be further expansion to 32. It would make for a better group stage. It would also increase the odds of getting the Tartan Army back to a major tournament, which alone may be worth it.