Why Spain vs Germany is one of the biggest quarter-finals in international football history

It’s tough to ascertain the true level of a team midway through an international tournament, with differing levels of opponents faced. But based on Euro 2024’s group stage and round of 16, it’s difficult to believe many people would not think Spain and Germany are the two outstanding sides.

That mainly sums up the relative lack of competition. Of the clear eight pre-tournament favourites, Italy and Belgium have been eliminated, England and France have been unconvincing going forward, while Portugal and the Netherlands have only sporadically impressed.

Spain have been impressive throughout, thriving with the speed of their wingers and rotating almost their entire side for a group-stage win over Albania without an obvious drop in quality.

Germany have been nervier but boast midfield control and a wide variety of attacking options. Opinions will vary, but it’s arguable that the competition’s best four players — Nico Williams, Fabian Ruiz, Toni Kroos, Jamal Musiala — play for these two sides.

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Nico Williams has been one of the best players at Euro 2024 (Jeroen van den Berg/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Now, perhaps uniquely, the best two sides will face one another at the quarter-final stage.

Euro 2024 has broadly been a positive tournament, although its level of entertainment value in the knockout stage is at risk of being compromised by the ‘lopsided’ draw, a concept that affected Euro 2016, World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020, too.

But there are merits to a draw that has more top teams in one half. You get exciting clashes between genuine contenders at a relatively early stage and a better chance of an outsider progressing further than they ever have — and this tournament has been about the smaller nations as much as the contenders. A lopsided draw can work particularly well in the Champions League when every round aside from the final is two-legged.

Think about it: by the semi-final stage, if you have two high-quality teams and two medium-quality teams, on paper a lopsided draw would mean you would have four closely contested matches rather than four predictable matches. OK, the final might be a little unbalanced, but isn’t a final always an event in itself and rarely won comprehensively?

International tournaments, though, are different. They feature single-legged matches at a neutral venue and they come around less regularly. And when there are seemingly only two genuine top-class sides in the competition, you probably want them meeting later than the quarter-final stage, which feels unprecedented in terms of World Cups and European Championships. But is it?

First, it’s worth considering that this ‘early final’ is essentially only happening at this stage because of the expansion to a 24-team tournament from Euro 2016 onwards. Previously, with four groups of four, winners met runners-up, therefore, making the reasonable assumption that the two most impressive sides would have actually won their groups, they wouldn’t have been able to meet before the semi-final stage.

It is only at 24- or 32-team tournaments where the ‘big two’ might meet at the quarter-finals onwards. The World Cup was a 16-team tournament up until 1982.

So when might a quarter-final meeting between the two strongest sides have happened in the 24-team era? In World Cup 1986, Brazil, Argentina and France were probably the three most highly rated sides, but France didn’t win their group. They met Brazil at the quarter-final stage, with France winning on penalties. But a game between the two strongest sides surely had to include Diego Maradona’s Argentina, who played neither.

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Argentina and Brazil met in the last 16 at the 1990 World Cup (Allsport UK /Allsport)

At World Cup 1990, two of the pre-tournament favourites — Argentina and the Netherlands — only snuck through as best-third-placed sides. Therefore, while both Argentina 1-0 Brazil and West Germany 2-1 Netherlands were unusually major clashes for the second-round stage, it’s difficult to argue there was a meeting of the two best sides in the competition before Argentina’s semi-final win against Italy on a penalty shootout, or their loss to West Germany in the final. There was a clear favourite and outsider for each of the four quarter-finals.

At World Cup 1994, the two pre-tournament favourites and best-performing group sides were Brazil and Germany, but they were on opposite halves of the draw and Germany were surprisingly eliminated by Bulgaria in the quarter-final.

From World Cup 1998, there was a more ‘simple’ 32-team tournament. The pre-tournament favourites — and probably the best two sides — France and Brazil met in the final.

In 2002, neither of the two pre-tournament favourites, France and Argentina, made it out of the groups. In a tournament curiously lacking in obvious contenders, Brazil versus Germany was probably another fitting final.

This process isn’t really about pre-tournament odds as much as it is the best sides in the competition. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look back to World Cup 2006 and see that Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England and the Netherlands were considered the five favourites, with eventual finalists Italy and France coming next. Brazil and Argentina looked particularly good in the group stage and were the most highly fancied sides going into the quarter-finals, but were on the opposite sides of the draw and were eliminated by France and Germany.

In 2010, the showdown meeting surely came at the semi-final stage, between Spain and Germany. In 2014, there were a couple of good quarter-final games — Brazil 2-1 Colombia and Germany 1-0 France — but neither were between the outright best two teams.

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Spain and Germany met in the 2010 World Cup semi-final (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The 2018 draw was even more lopsided than this one, with France and Brazil the best two sides going into the quarter-finals. They would have met in the semis, but Brazil lost to Belgium.

World Cup 2022 was a bit of a mess, for various reasons. No team collected nine points in the group stage. The best sides were probably two of Brazil, France and Argentina. The only meeting between those sides came, of course, in an epic final after Brazil had been eliminated at the quarter-final stage again, this time by Croatia.

For the Euros, it’s simpler. For aforementioned reasons, only the 2016 and 2020 editions come into play here.

There was a lopsided draw in 2016, too. Portugal won the tournament but had struggled through to the quarter-final stage with three group-stage draws and an extra-time win in the second round. Germany, Italy and France were probably the most fancied sides, so Germany’s penalty shootout win over Italy in the quarter-final was an unusually high-quality match-up. But the hosts and favourites, France, surely merit a role in the ‘real’ final. They beat Germany in the semi-final.

And finally, in 2020, Italy, Spain, France and England were the four sides you would consider here. Their only meetings — Italy’s wins over Spain and England, both on penalties — came in the semi-final and final, as you would hope for.

Therefore, tomorrow’s opening quarter-final really does feel unusual. The two most impressive sides in a major international tournament are facing each other earlier than ever. There is, of course, no guarantee that the victor will win the tournament — or even reach the final, with France and Portugal standing in their way in the semi, so the ‘real final’ tag is somewhat presumptuous.

Handily, there’s a simpler way of putting it: quarter-finals are never usually this big.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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