I'm lucky enough to be able to recall Ireland’s first win at a major football competition in June 1988. Ray Houghton’s header that day in Stuttgart was enough to see off England and gave Ireland its first taste of success at a major tournament. Despite a credible display in the remaining two games, the Republic of Ireland had to wait another twenty-four years before appearing at the European Championships again. In the intervening period the country appeared at three World Cup Finals (1990, 1994 and 2002).
Is there is reason for this? The answer is probably yes.
Historically, World Cups have been easier for UEFA member nations to qualify for. In 1986 and 1990 more than 40% of UEFA members qualified for the finals. Between 1994 and 2002, 14 UEFA members qualified for the World Cup Finals. Since 2006 this has been reduced to 13. While the number of places has fallen by just one in recent competitions, the number of UEFA members has nearly doubled in size since 1986. The opposite has happened with the Euros.
For me, Ireland’s qualification for Euro ’88 is still the country’s greatest achievement. Only 8 countries travelled to Germany that summer. France, Portugal, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Greece, Turkey, and many more missed out on those finals. The Euro 1992 Finals were an even harder competition to get to, with less than a quarter of the teams entering the initial stage qualifying. Since then the competition has expanded, with 16 teams at the finals from 1996 to 2012. Next year’s expansion will mean nearly half of the countries that entered the qualifying round will appear at the finals.
The World Cup has become much harder to reach for European teams, and the Euros much easier (see graph).
An even better illustration of is provided by Wikipedia pages for the European Championships. The maps below are taken from the website and show the qualifying countries in blue (sometimes light blue) against those that did not qualify (red, orange, and yellow). Compare the blue in the Euro ’88 map with the blue of Euro ’16.
Next summer, you'll be able to drive from the Algarve to Moscow and never leave a country that has reached the finals in France!