MICHAEL PEARLMAN SAYS: Euro 2012 – what a tournament!

EURO 2012, what a stunning tournament.

If anything could banish my end of season blues brought about by Tottenham’s implosion and Newport County’s Wembley heartache then it has been this feast of football with implausibly high levels of quality and attacking intent.

I realise that my obsession with the Italia 90 World Cup is nothing more than wistful Paul Gascoigne-related nostalgia, but this has without question already been the best international tournament of my lifetime with three mouthwatering games still to come.

The football has been exciting throughout.

Yet I am hit with the dilemma of professional gain and personal interest with regard to the 2016 version of the tournament being revamped to accommodate 24 rather than 16 nations.

The format will be as ugly as a Nigel de Jong special delivery tackle in a World Cup final when the changes are made, with third place in a group of four enough to qualify some nations for the knockout stages. That will lead to far less intriguing group clashes and will dilute the tournament horribly in my estimation.

That’s the personal view.

However, there is also obviously the professional element to this, which is that the inflated numbers of teams permitted vastly increases the chance of Welsh participation.

The World Cup qualifying campaign looks mightily tough for Wales – though I fully expect them to finish above Scotland and take six points off them – but a tilt at Euro 2016 now seems a mightily realistic prospect.

As is the notion that Wales can, by 2016, be more than competitive should they reach France.

Why? Because they are doing what England should be doing, which is focusing on development at grass roots level and working exceptionally hard to ensure kids prioritise football over rugby.

I’m not getting into the whole ‘which is Wales’ national sport’ debate because, frankly, it isn’t a question that requires an answer. I’d much rather we adopt the Australian mantra of dominating whatever sport it is we participate in and accept that Wales will always be divided over preference for ball shape.

Participation levels among under 16s are higher for football – around three times higher – and with the new state-of-the-art academy facility being built at the Newport Sports Village, the Football Association of Wales are continuing to prioritise tomorrow over today, as well they should.

They are a ‘five star nation’ in terms of UEFA’s grassroots charter and over time that will pay dividends.

When the German and Spanish football federations found themselves at a low ebb a decade ago, concerted efforts were made to focus on youth and the payoff has certainly started for the Germans who have re-defined their own traditions with a free-flowing style and diversity in selection.

England’s technical deficiency in major tournaments after the break-up of the ridiculously labelled ‘Golden Generation’ is more to do with the FA’s inertia than it is the failure of Ashley Young or Wayne Rooney to ignite this particular tournament.

Éngland must get their house in order, the project to build a national youth academy in Burton having now taken eleven years to complete.

It is in developing players where England’s biggest failings are and it is likely to be some time before the likes of Jack Wilshere, Wayne Rooney and Kyle Walker are the norm rather than exceptions to the rule that English players are technically inferior to their rivals.

Many pundits, including Chris Waddle, have criticised the move to switch to 24 teams from 2016 and, as a fan, I can see where he is coming from.

However, in four years it might be the only way England can hope to achieve qualification and no amount of practising penalty kicks can change that.

The Premier League is, for my money, the most exciting in the world, but until the FA catch up with the rest of Europe – including Wales – in terms of youth development, nothing is going to change in terms of English failure on the grandest stage.

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