One of the most anticipated sporting events this summer has taken centre stage and at this moment is heating up quite nicely. The new European Championship, an expansion of 24 teams from 16, has surpassed the group stages and already there are many wonderful stories developing. While many had questioned Michel Platini’s proposed expansion, Euro 2016 has perhaps exceeded expectations and this expansion seems to have made Europe’s top competition even more exciting.

With an expanded field heading into the tournament, there were suggestions that the quality of play would have been impacted with quite a few ‘smaller nations’ down to compete. With just about three points needed to advance many experts feared that negative tactics would be employed to do just enough to secure the desired points. While there have been games with teams sitting behind the ball and making it difficult for others to express themselves, the quality has been quite brilliant. The bravery and courage shown by some of the smaller nations has been a joy to watch and have shown that they’re capable of challenging some of the best in the world.

The likes of Hungary, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland have shown just how far football has developed in Europe. They’ve pushed the traditional powerhouses all the way thus far and has not allowed them to have it all their own way. They’ve played some very good football in every aspect of the beautiful game going toe-to-toe with some of the very best players not only on the European continent but also in the world. To think that even with an extended field the mighty Netherlands failed to book a place in France says a lot about how far European football has come. With that said, how did the competitiveness reach this level on the European continent?

One aspect of the development has been an increased emphasis on youth development. The European nations have invested millions in their youth policy to try and produce players with great ability to compete with the best in the world. Due to this strategy, the traditional clubs have gone out to scout the best players across the continent in an effort to gain an advantage over their rivals in a commercial and football sense. This also helps in terms of passing on the knowledge from the top teams to the lesser teams and as such the standard is likely to improve on all fronts.

Credit must also be given to UEFA for the way they’ve constructed the Champions League and Europa League. Clubs from nations such as Israel, Romania, Denmark, Norway, Ukraine and Cyprus ply their trade in Europe’s top competitions every season exposing them to the highest level of football in the world. As such, they are forced to adapt to their superior opposition and imitate their structure as well as approach. In doing so they also force other local clubs to follow suit hence taking their local game to new heights.

A deeper look at each squad at the Euros show that every nation has at least two or three players who ply their trade in one of Europe’s Premier leagues. There are also at least one or two players from each nation with Champions League or Europa League experience. That kind of experience and exposure can make a huge difference, and as shown so far in France, the margin for error is extremely small. Looking forward to the future it promises to become even more competitive as nations gain experience in big tournaments and their players get recruited to the top leagues.

The knockout stages are upon us and some enticing clashes are expected. With the way things have gone so far more upsets, thrills, and spills could happen as the small nations look to write their names in the history books. Fancied nations such as Austria, Ukraine, and Turkey have been sent packing wile Portugal are lucky to still be in France. Poland and Wales can upset the odds to make a deep run while powerhouses Germany, France, Spain, and Italy are on a collision course to face each other. Whatever happens from here will surely win over a few neutrals. However, UEFA can be proud of the display on the pitch and its contribution to the development of football across the continent.