Euro 2024 is welcome relief from monotony of club football

BERLIN — Here’s a stat for you: Of the 24 teams competing at Euro 2024, just one, Spain, won all three group games. And here’s another: Not a single team lost all three.

There’s a level of parity and possibility at work here that makes major tournaments like Euro 2024 so appealing. Yeah, we come for the history, pride and the anthems, but we stick around for the uncertainty that marks most of the matches. In an age when super teams routinely stomp all over the have-nots in club football, the unpredictability of international football is a refreshing change of pace.

Case in point: Liverpool finished a distant third in the Premier League and still won 63% of their games (24 of 38). Guess who did not win 63% of their games. Neither of the two finalists at Euro 2020 (not in 90 minutes, anyway), Italy and England. Nor did Portugal, who won it in 2016 (in fact, memorably, they won just one game in regular time, against Wales).

We are so accustomed to the resource inequality and polarization that mark league football — Manchester City have won the Premier League six of the past seven seasons, for example — that all this uncertainty feels a little alien. Of the 36 games played thus far in Germany, teams were separated by a single goal with 15 minutes to go in 30 of them. If you like unscripted drama, this is your thing.

If you like the highest-quality football with hugely talented, familiar names moving like clockwork on the pitch following patterns of play designed by the finest coaching minds … well, not so much. International football won’t ever match club football for that.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Club teams work together year round, whereas international coaches only get a couple weeks with their players. That’s not enough to put together anything sophisticated or interesting tactically, which is why you see so many basic, off-the-shelf schemes.

Then there’s the obvious point: The talent pool available to a national team coach is limited and you can’t just sign more players to fit your vision. You may want an attacking left-back, but you’re stuck with a left-footer who doesn’t like to cross the halfway line. Or, like Serbia with Dusan Vlahovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, you might have two excellent target men who should both be playing up front on their own with wingers supplying them, but because they’re two of your best players, you cram them into your lineup, sacrificing system for talent.

There’s no point comparing the Euros and other international tournaments to the Big Five European leagues and the gold standard in the game, the Champions League. That should be obvious. The average player you see on the pitch in the Euros is going to be worse than the guys you see week in, week out during the club season. In Germany, you only need to look at the number of starters who do not play for major clubs.

Even among the favorites at Euro 2024, you’ll find starters from mid-size teams. Among the minnows in Germany, you have squads with only a couple of players who are regulars in top leagues.

Now, it doesn’t automatically mean they are inferior, but it’s a valid indicator of talent, considering better players tend to end up at better clubs in better leagues.

So relative to the club game, international tournaments like Euro 2024 have less-talented players and less-sophisticated tactics. But is this really a turn-off? I’d argue no.

For example, Spain’s victory over Italy was one of the most dominant performances we’ve seen in the tournament, yet it finished 1-0 thanks to an avoidable own goal. That’s football. You don’t always get to reap what you sow.

And while the format with the best third-place sides qualifying has its critics — two weeks of football to whittle down 24 teams to 16 seems a little silly — there’s a net positive, too. Everybody gets to take a mulligan after a bad performance (and sometimes even two bad performances).

As a result, with the round of 16 starting on Saturday, all the pre-tournament favorites are still alive, with the exception of Croatia, who most bookies had as ninth favorites. And, lest we forget, it took a goal in the eighth minute of injury-time to knock them out. Not to mention the fact that they got pummeled by Spain and couldn’t manage more than a draw against little Albania.

Euro 2024 has left us with a straight knockout involving a compelling blend of traditional box office heavyweights (England, Germany, France, Italy) and minnows (Georgia, Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia) who can get on a hot streak and dream of being Greece when they won the competition in 2004.

Football is imbalanced enough at club level. There’s already far too many fans outside of the elite pressing their noses against the glass and knowing they’ll never compete with the very best. The European Championship is a nice antidote to that.