Why the UEFA Nations League will end the boredom of international breaks
Whilst FIFA are widely and rightfully criticised for many of their decisions in governing world football, UEFA are making interesting and exciting changes to international football, with their latest innovation, the Nations League, about to begin.
Long have football fans complained about the tedium of international breaks, with most spending the time pining for a return of domestic action. The breaks had been filled with pointless, half-hearted friendlies and qualifiers against weak opposition that really struggle to excite supporters.
Whilst many fans wanted to get behind their international team, it almost seemed like a chore to go and watch those games and a return to Premier League action was preferable by far.
UEFA have recognised this and taken steps to spice things up a bit with the brand new Nations League. Whilst the format is a bit convoluted and complicated to get your head round at first, it should actually be a huge improvement for both fans and international teams involved.
By way of explanation, the Nations League separates the 55 UEFA teams into four leagues and each league is split into four groups of either three of four teams. League A is the strongest, featuring the likes of France, England and Germany, whilst League D includes teams such as Andorra, Latvia and Belarus.
The four groups (within the leagues) play each other home and away from September to November. The teams finishing bottom of the groups in leagues A, B and C will be relegated. The teams finishing top of groups in leagues B, C and D will be promoted. The four teams winning the groups in League A will go into the Nations League Finals in June which will see a semi-final and a final to crown the winner.
England are in League A, Group 4 alongside Spain and Croatia. One of the three teams will be in the finals next summer, and one will be in League B in the next edition of the Nations League in 2020, the other will stay where they are. Scotland are in League C, Group 1 with Albania and Israel, meaning they are hoping for promotion to League B and definitely need to avoid relegation to the minnows of League D. Got it?
The format was always going to be a bit of a hassle, but all we need to know for now is that your team will have two teams to play home and away. Top the group for success, avoid finishing bottom.
This is great for a few reasons. It guarantees that international teams will be playing other sides of comparable standard over four games in the space of three months in competitive fixtures. No team will want to be relegated in this new format, no manager will pick a second string side, which certainly brackets this new tournament as competitive. It is clearly not the World Cup or European Championships, but think of it as the League Cup of international football.
In a three-team group every game is crucial to avoid that dreaded last place, and the last couple of matches in the group are bound to be nail-biting for at least two of the teams involved. Far more so than any friendly could ever be.
It is also a good chance for rivalries to develop over home and away fixtures, which will make tournament fixtures at the next Euros all the more exciting. Grudges could be held by relegated teams whilst bragging rights will be won by those who top the groups.
This new format is also a great learning ground for international managers. Take England’s Gareth Southgate who will be taking on the 2010 World Cup winners Spain and the 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia over four games. What better test is there for an international manager outside of tournament football? If Southgate can come out on top of that group, work out ways to play on the front and back foot against teams of that quality, then he will be thoroughly prepared to take on Euro 2020 when it comes around.
There will be puzzles to solve for Southgate and his managerial adversaries, which is the beauty of home and away legs. If England are beaten at home to Spain, how can they prevail in the next contest? It is the perfect test for a young coach at the highest level.
Fans will certainly appreciate the increased competition, as you would over a range of sports, but in these contests and, of course, if their team reaches the finals next summer it will be a great spectacle when there would normally be no competitive football played. Imagine the feel-good feeling among England fans if they were to lift the trophy next summer, it would not be as big as the World Cup euphoria that swept the nation in 2018, but it would still be a whole lot of fun.
There is also the added bonus of performance in the Nations League giving teams a better chance of qualification for Euro 2020. This is incredibly complicated to explain and will only really benefit the lower ranked teams, but to put it simply, any team topping any Nations League group will have a chance of qualifying for Euro 2020 through the play-offs, if they fail to make it through the traditional qualification group.
20 teams will qualify for Euro 2020 through the normal qualification method, with four spaces left to be filled by play-off winners. That means 35 teams will be vying for the 16 spots in the play-offs and the four places in the tournament, and Nations League performance will give them their best chance of getting there. It makes the new competition all the more important.
There really seems to be no downside to the UEFA Nations League for fans or teams alike. Would Scotland fans rather see them play friendlies against more glamorous opponents than Albania and Israel? Maybe they would, but surely it is better for the team to test themselves against similar level opposition and hopefully gain momentum going into the Euro 2020 qualifiers starting in March 2019.
England’s final Group 4 fixture is at home to Croatia in November. If that was simply a friendly would anyone care? But if that match will determine who tops the group or who avoids relegation, surely fans and players are like are going to be far, far more motivated by it.
The Nations League seems like a superb idea to keep everyone interested in international football outside of the big tournaments. The next of which will be Euro 2020 when we will see UEFA’s next big innovation of hosting the competition across the whole continent. Hopefully both inventive new ideas will be huge successes.
England are available at 12/1 with Betway to win the 2018/19 UEFA Nations League
September 3rd, 2018 by Simon A