Many people, me included, have become disillusioned with some aspects of international football. It’s mainly friendlies that get me. The World Cup in Brazil was rightly considered to be one of the best ever and became compelling viewing, but now we’re back into a qualifying campaign and the argument against meaningless matches between one major nation and a minnow has returned to the fore. Friendlies have often been a contentious subject, yet from an England perspective it gave you a chance to perhaps see some new players and consider how they might cope in a national shirt. It was Sven-Goran Eriksson who ruined it all for me, with his incessant substitutions turning a second half into one long procession of players coming and going, whilst in between you might get some action.
Of course this current qualifying competition has thrown up some amazing results as the so-called minnows have staked a claim to be taken seriously. But the format of UEFA qualifying, with its seedings, makes it difficult for lower ranked countries to move up the ladder and potentially qualify as they must put together consistent performances for possibly more than one campaign. That means you’re looking at performing above average for virtually eight years, and given how often some countries change their manager not to mention struggle to unearth enough players who can compete at the top level for that length of time, it shows just how tough an ‘ask’ that is.
But UEFA has just announced a forward thinking and brave competition to run in between qualifying tournaments. The UEFA Nations League will take its bow between September and November 2018, just after World Cup 2018 which may, or may not, be held in Russia. The qualifying competition for Euro 2020 will take place between March and November 2019. From the inaugural Nations League the groups will be drawn using the national team coefficients at 15th November 2017. The format may sound a little confusing but it is fairly simple once you break it down.
There are four ‘leagues’, A, B, C and D. The highest ranked teams will go in League A with the next best into B and so on. Leagues A, B and C will contain twelve teams with 16 going into League D. Both Leagues A and B will have four groups of three. League C will have two groups of four and two of three. League D will have four groups of four.
UEFA hasn’t stated whether these groups are to be competed on a home-and-away basis, but I think it’s likely they will be. There will be an overall Nations League winner who will be one of the four group winners in League A competing in a play-off tournament with Semi-Finals and Final in June 2019. This is going to be the format each time so in a non-World Cup/non-European Championship year, there will be this ‘mini-final tournament’, much like the European Championships used to be before 1980. We must hope UEFA doesn’t get over excited and decide to try and expand this in the future. Equally we must hope the major clubs or Europe do not decide their players must be rested for this, otherwise it could lose its appeal, but a country could win the trophy having played just 6 matches.
The Nations League will then start to influence the UEFA qualifying tournaments after Euro 2020. A team’s performance in the Nations League will affect their seeding for World Cup 2022. The first Nations League will also have an effect on the teams qualifying for Euro 2020 as all the group winners will go into a play-off competition to be played in March 2020, consisting of a straight knockout to produce four countries to join the ten group winners and ten runners-up from the usual qualifying groups. If the Nations League group winners have already qualified then the next best non-qualifier in the group will go through.
UEFA has also added in promotion and relegation between the Leagues and so a country finishing bottom of their group in League A will drop down to League B and vice versa. This should create the possibility for countries to move up and down the Leagues with more frequency than the current seeding system allows.
Based on the current UEFA coefficients, here is what the Leagues would look like if the Nations League started today.
If we consider Scotland for a moment and assume they were drawn in a group with Austria and Israel. If they win that group then they will go into the play-off system for a place in Euro 2020, if they hadn’t finished in the top two places in their qualifying group. They will also get promoted to League A for the following Nations League, giving them top-class opposition to come up against. This would be far more beneficial than friendlies with little consequence. Larger countries may initially dismiss this as a gimmick, but eventually they should come to realise if they remain in League A they get to test their players against the best in Europe, rather having to come up against lower ranked teams.
Of course there will be those who detest the intention of improving international football, preferring to continue sniping at the whole concept. But what it will do is do away with many pointless matches for the larger nations, and for the lower ranked nations it provides them with competition with countries at a similar level, giving them a great opportunity to win some matches and progress to a higher League.
Personally, I like the idea which is interesting and could at least placate calls for lower ranked teams to ‘pre- qualify’ for qualifying competitions.