With UEFA EURO 2016 in France drawing ever closer, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino looks forward to this summer's first 24-team final tournament in his UEFA•direct column.
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The UEFA EURO 2016 finals draw at the Palais des Congrès in Paris provided us with an opportunity to look back as well as forward.
Looking back, the decision to stage a 24-team tournament has been fully vindicated through the European Qualifiers competition. Of course, Spain, the defending champions, will be in France, and they will be joined by fellow three-time winners Germany, who are making their 12th consecutive appearance. But who would have imagined that three teams from pot five in the qualifying draw – Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland – standing in places 38 to 40 in UEFA's coefficient rankings, would get through to UEFA EURO 2016?
The trio qualified directly for France, with Northern Ireland winning their group, and Albania and Iceland finishing as runners-up in theirs. In addition, Slovakia (as an independent nation) and Wales will be making their EURO debuts, while former co-hosts Austria (2008) and Ukraine (2012) have also qualified for the first time. This proves not only the strength-in-depth of European national team football – after all, Europe has 24 teams in the top 35 of the FIFA rankings – but also that the expanded tournament has reinvigorated the qualifying competition for many sides, several of which had previously found it impossible to advance to a final tournament. Such an improvement also bodes well for the European Qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Looking forward, the finals draw also showed how well France is prepared to host this year's biggest single global sporting event. The ten host cities are ready, and the finishing touches are being put to the stadiums that will stage the 51 matches, to ensure that they meet UEFA's requirements and the expectations of 2.5 million spectators.
In a way, the UEFA European Football Championship as a competition is also coming home. On 10 July 1960, the Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 after extra time in the first-ever European Nations' Cup final at the Parc des Princes in Paris. As the names of the finalists indicate, Europe was a different place back then – just as the events of 13 November 2015 in the French capital remind us that the world is a different place today. Yet football will continue to endure as a force for good; a celebration of entertainment, escape and joie de vivre – and I have no doubt that France will deliver a safe and secure festival of football.
Kicking off on Friday 10 June, when Les Bleus welcome Romania, and ending, quite fittingly, on the 56th anniversary of that first final, this time at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, we are only a matter of months away from the biggest and best EURO ever.