Nations League approved by UEFA

One of the questions European football has been looking to answer in the past few years is what to do to improve International friendlies. A lot of international friendlies are not competitive enough to be of benefit of teams, as well as being pretty boring to watch for paying fans and TV audiences. Most are setup more as a money-spinning exercise for a national association than as a meaningful way to improve a national team.

Last week, UEFA outlined a plan to revamp and hopefully improve international football in Europe, by announcing the creation of the Nations League which will begin in 2018 and be played on most of the international dates currently occupied by friendlies.

At present the format has not been finalised, but as I understand it:
• The Nations League will run alongside the existing qualifying campaign for EURO 2020
• The 54 teams in UEFA will be split up into four divisions based on their ranking
• Those divisions will then be further split into four groups of three or four teams, who will play each other home and away
• The four group winners will playoff to see who wins the Nations League, or for promotion to the division above
• The bottom placed team in each group faces relegation (I think, as UEFA’s explanation isn’t all that clear whether four teams, or just one, will be relegated from each division)
• Four teams from within each division, who have not qualified by right for EURO 2020, will playoff to obtain a place in EURO 2020, meaning that at least one team from each division plays in the tournament.

At the moment, it’s expected that the top two divisions will be made up of teams ranked 1-12 and 13-24, with the third division being teams 25-38, with the remaining sixteen teams making up the fourth division.

Teams will still have the opportunity to arrange friendly matches with other UEFA, or non-UEFA teams, but those opportunities will be fewer than they presently are. The dates of the Nations League matches will also mean that warm-up friendlies before international tournaments shouldn’t be affected.

At present, the plan is for the first Nations League to begin straight after the 2018 World Cup, with EURO 2020 qualifying to begin in March 2019. The qualifying format has yet to be announced, but what has been stated is that the normal qualifying process will account for 20 of the 24 teams in the tournament, with the other four places coming from the Nations League playoffs.

As I wrote about a couple of years ago, UEFA President Michel Platini made the nonsensical decision to ruin a good thing by expanding the EURO’s from sixteen to 24 teams for EURO 2016 in France.

This has meant that the qualification process for EURO 2016 is ridiculously convoluted and confusing. There are nine groups of six teams, including France, who qualify as hosts but were still drawn into a group, though the results of their games won’t count. The top two teams in each group go through automatically, as does the third-placed team with the best record. The remaining eight third-placed teams will playoff for the remaining spots.

However, I don’t think that qualification format will work for EURO 2020. That tournament will be played all over Europe, rather than in a host country, so there’s no automatically qualifying host. Also, usually, qualifying for the EURO’s begins soon after the World Cup; qualifying for EURO 2016 begins on September 7th. So, the fact that EURO 2020 qualification will be starting much later suggests to me that teams will have to play fewer matches to qualify. My guess is that there’ll be 13 qualification groups; 11 with four teams, 2 with five. I’d guess all thirteen group winners advance, plus the second-placed team with the best record. The other twelve second-placed teams would then playoff for a spot in EURO 2020.

There are still a lot of details to be worked out. One question that came to mind immediately is what happens to the playoff spot from the top division if all of the top 12 teams qualify by right for EURO 2020? As 44% of UEFA will be playing in the tournament proper; it’s very likely that all of the twelve best teams will qualify by right.

But, fuzzy details aside, I actually like this idea, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.

I’m quite excited by the prospect of seeing how some of the lesser-lights of European football will do in the tournament. I’d still argue that the helping to improve some of those nations was the better option than diluting the competition; especially as each European Championship has seen at least one debuting nation taking part, but what’s done is done, and I’m excited to see what happens to those teams, both in the tournament and then afterwards, as even if they suffer some heavy defeats, the tournament experience will benefit them in the future.

I also believe that the Nations League will help some of the lower-ranked teams to improve. I’ve argued in the past that I am vehemently against having any sort of pre-qualifying in UEFA competitions. I want to see those nations get better, and not cast aside by the others. I firmly believe that the best way for the smaller countries to improve is to be exposed to tougher opposition.

However, I’m all in favour of some of those so-called minnows, playing each other in a competitive environment, as long as it’s as well as, rather than instead of, playing in regular qualifying. Those games will give them a greater chance of winning some games, which will help their confidence going into games against better teams.

None of those bottom sixteen teams will lose out financially either. It’s a sad fact that it’s a rare event for any of those teams to be selected as a friendly opponent by any of the elite nations in Europe, just because they’re not seen as tough enough opposition to be any use, either in terms of improving the team or bringing fans in.

There are quite a lot of teams in UEFA who have been steadily improving for years, but just haven’t managed to take the last step and qualify for a tournament. Teams like Montenegro, Armenia and Albania have proven to be tough opposition for teams over the past few years, but haven’t managed to qualify for a major tournament. This system will give countries like that a chance to show what they can do at a tournament.

As for the elite teams, they’ll be playing fewer Nations League games than the other sides, so will still be able to arrange friendlies against other elite sides from around the world. According to UEFA, the Nations League will be played on dates currently earmarked for friendlies, so there shouldn’t be any extra physical demands on players either.

However, there are a few disadvantages to this system that I can see.

Firstly, what this means is that there will be less chance for national teams to experiment. At present, friendly matches are used to try out new players and experiment with different formations and tactics, safe in the knowledge that the result doesn’t necessarily matter, which, to be fair, is one of the reasons why friendlies don’t provide adequate competition.

Well, now the result will matter, apart from those few friendlies a year that aren’t part of the Nations League, so managers are going to be less inclined to change things around, so there will be less opportunities for fringe players to break into their national team.

Secondly, following on from the above point, despite UEFA’s denials, this could increase the physical stresses on players. At present, in most friendlies, it gets agreed that teams can use far more than the normal maximum of three substitutes. This allows a manager far greater flexibility in terms of which players they play. What’s absolutely true is that most club managers loathe friendlies, and only release players because they have to; especially if the player in question is only just back from an injury.

So, in order to keep clubs sweet, international managers will often promise to play their player for only a certain amount of time, e.g. 45 minutes. As these ‘friendlies’ are now going to be competitive, there’s a good chance that managers will be limited to the standard three substitutions a game, meaning that they won’t be able to make arrangements with club managers, which could lead to more players developing minor injuries before international games, which will ‘magically’ heal by the time their next club game comes around.

Plus, while I’m all for promotion and relegation in club football; I don’t see any point in doing it in the Nations League. UEFA have planned it in order to make all games competitive and reduce any dead rubbers, but I don’t think it’s the right move to make.

Some national teams are always strong, but for most, their fortunes fluctuate over time. This means a team can be strong now, but not so strong a couple of years later, and vice-versa. For example, when the UEFA qualifying for the 2014 World Cup was drawn in 2011, Switzerland were ranked 19 in UEFA, and 50 in FIFA. Currently, Switzerland are ranked 4th in UEFA, and 7th in FIFA. So, it’s fair to say that Switzerland are a much stronger team now than they were three years ago. Similarly, Iceland were 48th in UEFA and 121st in FIFA in 2011, now they are 29th in UEFA and 52nd in FIFA.

On the flip side of this, in 2011, Norway were ranked 8th in UEFA and 12th by FIFA. Now, they are ranked 31st in UEFA and 57th in FIFA. So, we can also say that Norway aren’t as strong a team now, as a few years ago.
Promotion and relegation wouldn’t take this into account though. It could keep a team in an artificially high division, at the expense of a stronger team that gets stuck in a lower division.

I don’t see why, instead of promotion and relegation, the teams just don’t get assigned on the basis of their UEFA ranking at the time of the draw.

Also, as the Nations League will run concurrently with the normal qualifying campaign, there’s every chance that a team who qualifies early for a World Cup/EURO, will use their remaining Nations League the same way teams use friendlies, which could skew the competition, and give some teams an unfair advantage over others.

There’s been a lot of cynicism in response to UEFA’s announcement of a few days ago, but I don’t share it. I think these plans will help the lower-ranked nations in UEFA, without adversely affecting the higher-ranked teams. Meaningless friendlies will be replaced with competitive football, which, in my opinion, has to be a good thing.

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