In a recent email to me entitled “League of Nations” long-time reader and commenter Andrew M. asked me if I could “decode this latest UEFA B.S.?” As always, I am happy to oblige.
The UEFA Nations League is a new European international competition (that’s the key word) that will begin in the 2018-2019 football year and that will largely replace international friendlies (and the dates set aside for them) in the European international calendar. It will be held in odd-numbered years and will not conflict with either World Cup or European Championship qualification. The competition was unanimously approved by UEFA’s 54 member nations at the 38th UEFA Congress of March 27.
Though there are many reasons (some of them quite good!) for this competition, the actual outcome of the tournament will be that four nations who do not qualify for the European Championships will be able to do so through this new “league” starting with the 2020 European Championships. Here is how those four nations will be determined.
First, the 54 UEFA nations will be divided into four “groups” based on their UEFA rankings, with the groups having between 13-14 nations apiece. These groups would then be broken down again into “pools” of 3-4 nations. Now, this is where the tournament begins to differ from other tournaments. First, the pool winners from the top group (which would likely include nations like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, etc.) would compete to become the UEFA Nations League champion. Second, the pool winners in groups 2-4 would be competing to see who is promoted to a higher group during the next league. Third, the last place finisher in each pool in groups 1-3 will be relegated to a lower group. This is the end of the “stand alone” portion of the league.
At this point the top twenty nations (those who have qualified for the European Championships through the traditional qualification process) in the league will be removed from the competition. Then, the top four teams within each UEFA Nations League group which have not already qualified through the traditional qualification process will qualify for a play-offs, with one team from each group joining the 20 teams which have already qualified for the European Championship.
So, Andrew, that is the “what,” but I think you were also asking, “Why?!”
This is one of those rare instances where UEFA’s unchecked greed may have a beneficial effect. Essentially, under the current format the vast majority of international friendlies between two European nations or between a European nation and a non-European nation are worthless to UEFA. They are sparsely attended in person, they have no value to to UEFA as a product to sell to a television network, etc.. Yes, there are exceptions- matches featuring to two top nations or matches between historical rivals- but generally speaking nobody cares about a friendly match between Poland and Slovenia- not even Polish or Slovenian people.
While there will still be a few true “friendlies” in the international calendar under this format, they will largely be replaced by matches which a) are competitive, b) generated fan interest, and c) are a product that UEFA can sell. This may benefit UEFA the most, but it still benefits everybody. Fans get to see better and more competitive matches, national federations get a bigger gate from the live attendance and their portion of UEFA’s television money, and UEFA gets more money in general.
Finally, I think it makes the European Championship (and by extension the World Cup) a better tournament. At the top of the heap no nation that “normally” qualifies for the European Championship is hurt by the Nations League- they’ll still qualify through the normal process and in between those tournaments be able to play numerous, competitive matches which can only make them better. In the middle of the pack those very good nations that miss out due to finding themselves in a “group of death,” because of a key injury during qualification, or what have you, get another chance at the “big” tournament. Finally, at the bottom, if a team from group four can make it to the UEFA Championship there is a good chance that they will be more than just a sacrificial lamb- and even if they are they’ll have made a lot of money along the way!