KIEV (Reuters) - UEFA soccer supremo Michel Platini ignited a debate over the future of the European Championship on Saturday as Italy and Spain prepared to do battle in the keenly awaited final of the current edition on Sunday in Kiev.
The tournament in Poland and Ukraine, the biggest sporting event in eastern Europe since the fall of the iron curtain, has been a roaring success despite off the field rows over racist fans and the jailing of a Ukrainian opposition leader.
Looking ahead, however, many commentators have voiced concern that UEFA’s move to expand the next tournament in France in four years’ time to 24 teams from 16 will dilute the quality of the competition.
Platini, who won the tournament with France as a player in 1984, also threw doubt on expectations that Turkey would host the 2020 edition, outlining ideas instead for a multi-country tournament spread across 12 to 13 cities.
“The Euros in 2020 could be held all over Europe,” the head of the European game’s governing body UEFA told a news conference.
“You could have one country with 12 host cities, or we could have it in 12 or 13 cities all over Europe. It is just an idea, but in these days of cheap air travel anything is possible,” Platini said, adding a decision would be made by January.
The co-hosting of this year’s tournament in cities as much as 1900 km apart have forced fans and teams to use air travel more than in previous editions without evidently undermining the party atmosphere in the host cities.
Poland’s city centre party zones have played host to almost 3 million fans in the past month and as many as 140,000 are expected to watch Sunday’s final in the fan zone in central Kiev.
A record 1.3 million fans have watched the games in the stadiums themselves but 2,000 tickets were still on sale for the final itself as of Friday night.
Thoughts in both host countries are also turning to the financial aftermath of a tournament which has cost tens of billions of euros in new roads, stadiums and infrastructure.
The head of Kiev’s city government Olexander Popov said there would be no immediate financial return.
“The biggest profit we can receive from the Euros is a positive image and reputation of the country and the city,” he told state television. “One should assess returns from hosting the championship in 1.5-2 years after the Euros.”
Both finalists are already in Ukraine and are expected to be joined by about 20,000 fans from Italy and Spain, travelling in spite of an economic crisis at home to which Euro 2012 has provided a welcome distraction.
Spain are seeking to cement their place among soccer’s great teams with a third major title on the trot after victory in the World Cup in South Africa and the last European finals in Austria and Switzerland four years ago.
But a defeat, at the end of a tournament in which their “tiki-taka” possession football has rarely raised the pulses of fans, would lead to a more modest evaluation of Vicente Del Bosque’s team’s place in the game’s hierarchy.
Italy, who last won the European Championship in 1968, by contrast have confounded expectations with positive, dynamic play and a potent attack led by the temperamental talent of Mario Balotelli.
A double from the 21-year old striker saw them upset a much-fancied young Germany side in the semi-finals in Warsaw on Thursday and was a stark contrast to Spain’s victory on penalties over Portugal after a dull 0-0 draw.
The teams met in the group stage with the game ending 1-1.
“We haven’t to be afraid of them,” said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, arguing his team was stronger than Spain in that game. “We have improved, both physically and psychologically.” (Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Ken Ferris)