This balance between advantage and disadvantage is maintained in the round of 16. On Saturday, Wales will face Denmark in Amsterdam. Both finished second in their group. But Austria too, and she has to play against Italy.
The need to close two round of 16 matches between the second-ranked teams, to make the whole format work, has the effect of unbalancing the draw. That was toned down a bit this time around by the fact that Spain were unable to dominate their group, thanks to Sweden’s late winner against Poland, and will face Croatia in Copenhagen. But the consequence is clear: some teams have a much more difficult journey to the final than others.
On one side of the draw, for example, Belgium must first face Portugal, then endure a possible quarter-final with France, before meeting Spain – perhaps – in the semi-final. On the other hand, England and Germany both have reason to curse a tough knockout first-round clash, but the price of victory is rich: a quarter-final against Sweden or Croatia, then most likely the Netherlands in the semi-finals.
Uneven draft is not necessarily a bad thing. This means that there is a road to the final stages for nations which in other formats would expect to be sent much sooner. It is to be greeted. A little randomness, after all, doesn’t hurt anyone.
But it also rather exposes the logic that it doesn’t matter when you go up against the great powers: to win the tournament, after all, you have to play them at some point. The problem is, sometimes you have to face more than others.