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At Euro 2024, The Good Comes From The Bad

Lasha Dvali of Georgia, Tomá Soucek of Czech Republic and goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili of Georgia battle for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2024 group stage match between Georgia and Czechia at Volksparkstadion on June 22, 2024 in Hamburg, Germany.
Photo by Marco Steinbrenner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

In the same way that the best part of March Madness is the first two weekends, the best part of an international soccer tournament is the group stage. It's the feeling of sitting in front of your TV-turned-fire hydrant, wrenching open the valve, and basking in joyous delirium as the torrent shoots straight into your eyeballs all day every day, that makes the first phase of these tournaments so amazing.

Sadly, we've reached the beginning of the end of this stage of the Euros. Only the third and final matches of the groups remain. Doubly unfortunately, each group's final games are played simultaneously. No longer can we organize our days around the 9 a.m./12 p.m./3 p.m. Eastern schedule that offered nearly an entire week of blissfully overwhelming action: From here on out, there will only be at most two time slots each match day. RIP to the best part of the Euro 2024 tournament. You will be missed.

If we have gathered here today to commemorate the excellence of the Euros' group stage, it's worth pointing out the teams that have provided the bulk of the thrills. Surprisingly, the less heralded teams have been the stars of the show. So many of the most entertaining games have involved at least one team that realistically has no shot at winning the tournament. We've written about a couple of them—namely, the perfection that was Turkey-Georgia and the golazos of Romania-Ukraine—but there have been even more: the midfield masterpiece Slovakia's Stanislav Lobotka produced in his team's 1-0 win over Belgium, the biggest upset in Euros history by ranking; Albania giving Croatia hell in a 2-2 draw that came to an electrifying close with Albania's equalizer deep into stoppage time; the Czech Republic's beautifully fluid attacking moves that inspired a goalkeeping performance for the ages out of Georgia's Giorgi Mamardashvili, in a match that ended 1-1.

You could also throw in Slovenia's commitment to Big Lad Summer with the twin towers of its starting strike partnership, Benjamin Sesko (6-foot-5) and Andraz Sporar (6-foot-1); and the two entertaining games brought to us by Ukraine's erratic nature, one at Ukraine's expense and the other to its benefit. And if you allow yourself to look a little higher, at the tier of teams that hope to go far in the knockouts but probably don't really think they can win it all, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark have also played a better and more attractive style than most of the favorites.

So, what gives? Why are the relative minnows bringing way more fun this summer than the likes of England and France? I have some theories. Part of it, I think, is a reflection of the incentives of the tournament's wonky format. In the more traditional format where only the top two teams in a four-team group qualify for the knockout rounds, ambitious smaller teams know they probably will need to get results in at least two and maybe even all three games to advance. A common strategy, then, is to play for draws early on before pushing for a win in the last game, hopefully against an opponent whose fate is already sealed. By contrast, in the current Euros' format, where even most of the third-placed teams go to the next round and nearly every single team has chances to advance right until the very end, three points alone can sometimes be enough to see you through. With a single victory now possibly enough to get a team into the knockouts, it seems like teams' strategies involve pushing hard for a win right away. And if there's one common hallmark to the comparatively lowly teams' coolness at Euro 2024, it's that all of them have been desperate to win.

But even aside from the possible influence of the Euros' structure, I think there's something deeper at work here, something that speaks to the nature of tournaments and our current relationship with the game. Tournament play is different from league play, international tournaments are different from club ones, and even within an international tournament, the group stage is different from the knockout rounds. It's easy (and, at least from an entertainment perspective, fair) to complain about the tactical conservatism many of the best international teams follow, but it really is a sound approach. I, too, have often griped about how boring a spectacle France has been throughout almost the entirety of manager Didier Deschamps's 12-year tenure in charge, but his record speaks for itself: His France reached the World Cup final in 2022, won the World Cup in 2018, reached the final of Euro 2016, fell in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup to the eventual champions (Germany), and is still the favorite to win Euro 2024. Being tough to beat defensively and patient in midfield, banking that your attacking talents are good enough to eventually crack the opposing defense's nut, and easing into tournaments so that you don't wear your team out before the matches that matter most, is a strategy proven to win trophies.

But while you have to accept that Deschamps or, to a lesser extent, England's Gareth Southgate have been successful because, not in spite, of their hard-on-the-eyes tactical setups, it's also important to remember that an international soccer tournament is about much more than just who wins the last game. It's about delighting in the group-stage deluge when the stakes are minor for some but titanic for others; it's about watching a team you have no particular affinity for or connection to and falling in love; it's about pulling for underdogs and watching the outpouring of emotion on the players faces and those of their countrymen in attendance when they pull off an upset; it's about discovering new players you've never seen and maybe never even heard of and being instantly captivated.

So many of those pleasures of international soccer can be found in their most potent form in the so-called "bad" teams. Their passion and emotion is evident from the first minute of the first match, since for players, coaches, and fans alike it may well be the only opportunity they'll ever have at this level. The sense of discovery, historically such a major part of the international game's appeal, basically only exists with them nowadays. Before the Bosman ruling and the subsequent great migration of players from around the globe into the few biggest teams and leagues in Europe, international tournaments were full of wonder and newness, offering a preciously rare opportunity to see up close many of the world's stars who spent their entire careers behind a geographical and technological veil.

Your average soccer fan today—in the post-Bosman world, and with practically every first-division match in every country on the planet just a URL away—is intimately familiar with the vast majority of players in the major tournaments. It's maybe no surprise that Germany and Spain are the two legit title hopefuls who've managed to excite during these Euros, seeing as Lamine Yamal (16 years old), Nico Williams (21), Jamal Musiala (21), and Florian Wirtz (21) are young enough to still feel fresh and new.

Meanwhile, almost everything about the Czech Republic and Albania and Romania and Turkey and Georgia and Slovakia and their ilk is a discovery. Many of those teams' goalscorers I'd never seen put the ball in the back of the net before. I had few expectations about how the teams would look, no opinion on whether their style of play or formation choices agreed with my own armchair manager's imagined expertise, and no real idea of what was possible. Because of that, every game has been a thrill and a revelation. Long may it continue, but even when it inevitably comes to an end sometime around the first or second knockout round, at least we'll always have the group stage.

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