With the two massive continental tournaments just around the corner, Scott Nicholls evaluates Jurgen Klinsmann’s claim that the Copa America is tougher to play in than its “diluted” European counterpart.
New York, NY — Most of my most prominent footballing memories growing up were ones of England trying, and usually spectacularly failing, at international tournaments. The tournament that meant the most to me growing up though, was the European Championship. Now, on the eve of the 2016 European Championships I couldn’t be more excited — and it’s largely because the tournament is now bigger and better.
When Michel Platini announced in 2014 that UEFA would be expanding the tournament to 24 teams, there was a strange kind of outrage among football “purists,” “pundits,” and members of the media. They all claimed the same thing: expanding from 16 nations to 24 would water down the quality on display.
Here, in the United States, with Copa America Centenario — a commemorative version of the Copa America to celebrate the 100 years since the competition was first held in 1916 – US Men’s National Team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, was quick to downplay the significance of the European Championships.
“If you compare this Copa America with these 16 nations compared to 24 going into the Euros,” Klinsmann opined, “then I almost think you have more quality in this Copa America than you have with a diluted kind of 24-team version of the European championship.” Klinsmann also went on to talk about how there were six “very good, very strong” CONCACAF teams involved in the Copa America.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since the World Cup was first organized in 1930, UEFA has won 11 of 20 World Cups, including four of the last five. Germany became the first European team to win the competition in the balmy, unforgiving, unfamiliar climates of South America when it beat Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final, after trouncing hosts, Brazil, in spectacular fashion at the Semi Final stage 7-1.
Looking at ELO rankings for UEFA, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF gives us a much clearer view of just how good teams competing at the Copa America and the European Championships actually are.
Klinsmann’s assertion is that the competition level in the Copa America is higher because there are fewer teams. The reality though is that the Copa America loses out in each and every category that you can analyze between the two competitions.
The lowest ranked team in the European Championships is Albania, which is ranked 62nd in the world, and the highest ranked team in the European Championships is Germany, which is ranked 1st. Compare this to the Copa America where the lowest ranked team in the competition is Haiti, ranked 86th, and the best Argentina at 2nd.
Granted, it’s too easy to just compare and contrast the best and worst teams in both competitions, but even when you dig a little deeper past the best and worst teams, the Copa Centenario comes up short once again.
The Copa Centenario’s 16 team field has an average ELO ranking of about 28th in global ELO, while the European Championships’ 24 team field has an average ELO ranking of 21st in the world. The amount of top 20 teams in global ELO taking part at the Copa America relative to the size of the tournament field is undoubtedly higher — Copa America 8/16 to European Championships’ 10/24 — but just like Major League Soccer, it’s not how good your best players are [teams, in this case], it’s how good the depth is.
The Copa Centenario doesn’t really have any depth.
The average ELO rating of the “depth” teams (I.E. teams ranked outside the top 20 in the world) in the Copa Centenario ranks at a lowly 47th overall, compared to the European Championships, which ranks at 36th overall in global ELO — even with the expanded field.
The biggest problem with Klinsmann saying the European Championships are “diluted” is that the reason the expanded field of the Copa America has made it a weaker competition is because CONCACAF is involved in the tournament.
The Euro expansion did not happen because UEFA feels bad for nations that don’t usually qualify. Those teams earned the right to play in the tournament. Switzerland is ranked higher in global ELO than all but two CONCACAF members (Mexico, Costa Rica), and 3 of the 10 CONMEBOL nations.
To further illustrate the strength that the European Championships will showcase, Euro 2016 “minnows” Slovakia beat Germany on Sunday in an international friendly, pretty comprehensively, 3-1. The European Championships bashers may point to it “only” having been a friendly, but that didn’t matter to USMNT fans when they accomplished a similar feat against a decidedly weaker Germany team in 2015.
The quality of players that Europe is producing has never been higher. European players are just as sought after world-wide as their South American counterparts now-a-days. Tiki-taka brought the technical revolution to a game that was very physical and methodical, and Germany overhauled the way the world looks at youth development when they revamped their youth soccer programs more than 10 years ago.
Europe is where the best players in the world want to play and it has the competition every player and coach wants to win — the UEFA Champions League. The CONCACAF Champions League and Copa Libertadores pale massively in comparison when you factor in the world viewership and the grandeur that surrounds them.
The best soccer in the world — in my humble opinion — happens in Europe. To the viewing public, the European Championships have an allure about them like the Champions league does to coaches and players.
Expanding the European Championships to 24 teams only shows how strong European soccer is, and it will only continue to get stronger.
Follow Scott Nicholls on Twitter @scottnicholls
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