Will the Nations League save international football?

ShareClose Comments
UEFA admits it has neglected international football outside qualifiers but has a plan up its sleeve to reinvigorate the game by replacing friendlies

The combined might of the Premier League and the Champions League has served to put international football firmly in the shadows in recent seasons.

Once every couple of years the senses are reawakened with a major tournament finals but, in between, the European Championship and World Cup qualifiers are largely humdrum affairs.

And the less said about the current state of international friendlies the better.

Fans, managers and national associations have all been in agreement about friendlies for a long time now; namely that they achieve nothing. UEFA, too, admits that.

“UEFA had been developing the Euro final tournament but not been focusing or doing anything for the matches which involve all national teams,” UEFA deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti told Goal.

“The Euro is just for those few who qualify but the bread and butter for the national teams is qualification matches.

“Nothing had been done since the middle of the 2000s so we thought that we needed to dedicate to national teams the same attention that had been dedicated to the clubs.

“To build something, to bring about a competition with identity and with branding which could break through even more with the fans.”

Uefa Nations League explainer

While the day-to-day dramas provided by the super-rich club teams command the majority of the attention there is still space for international football between tournaments. To deliver those games a shot in the arm, UEFA has initiated the Nations League.

Those worthless friendlies, for the most part, will be replaced by competitive matches between evenly-ranked teams with the prospect of promotion, a trophy and even a second chance at qualifying for Euro 2020 at stake.

The structure of the competition will also ensure that the bigger teams will still have the space needed to plan lucrative and glamourous friendlies against esteemed opponents.

Starting next September, following the conclusion of the World Cup in Russia, the Nations League will take pride of place in the European international football calendar. Matches will be meaningful and competitive. Regulations will ensure that substitutions will be limited to three and players capped for the first time in the Nations League will be deemed to be cap-tied.

“The Nations League has a set of regulations which is absolutely similar, except the formal part, to the regulations of the qualifiers," said Marchetti.

“These are competitive matches which are regulated by rules which are practically the same.”

This is a brand new competition, with a new identity and trophy to match, and one which UEFA feels will drag upwards the standards of the international game in comparison to that on offer in the Champions League and Europa League.

“National teams and clubs are the two souls of football,” Marchetti said. “The two are equally important. You can’t have national teams without the clubs and vice versa. And the fans hugely enjoy both.

Gareth Bale Wales Georgia 09102016

“There was huge potential for the competitions for national teams to be improved and we have been trying to bring to the surface what could be done.

“And in doing this, especially regarding the European qualifiers, we have used some of the recipes which have been tested in other competitions and which work very well.”

UEFA's attention has been focused on the club game for a long time, with the Europa League launching in 2009 and the Champions League restructuring in time for next season. Furthermore there have been significant changes to the European Championship format, with the expansion to 24 teams and the implementation of the “week of football” for the qualification matches.

“Today, what is possible was not possible before,” Marchetti said. “An English fan who was also interested in watching France, Spain, Italy, Germany etc in the past had a problem because all these teams played at the same time as each other.

“Today if England play on Thursday, most probably Spain play on Friday and all the other teams. We think that this is a good service to the fans, the football lovers who like their team and who also like to see the matches played by other teams.”

Friendlies have largely been left to flounder with national associations deciding among themselves who to play. Now, though, UEFA has moved to stop the neglect.

“We have to make the best possible use of the calendar so that the fans know exactly who’s playing when and they have the possibility to get access to as many matches as possible,” said Marchetti.

“Which is what we are doing currently with the concept of the week of football where between Thursday and Tuesday all matches are spread and the television broadcasters are able to buy the rights.”

Dembele Mbappe France England

All the UEFA-affiliated teams will be split into four leagues – A, B, C and D – depending on their coefficient rankings on October 11. That marks the conclusion of the current World Cup qualification schedule excluding the playoff dates. Nations League matches will be played during the September, October and November international windows next year with Euro 2020 qualification commencing in March 2019.

League A will feature Europe’s 12 best teams split into four groups of three teams. The next 12 teams as per the coefficient will be placed in League B – again in four groups of three. Fifteen teams – one group of three and four groups of four – will play in League C. The remaining 16 teams – four groups of four – will make up League D.

Teams will play either four or six Nations League games depending on group size. The four group winners from League A will go forward to the Nations League Finals to be held in June 2019 – two semi-finals, a third-place match and a final. The host nation for these matches will be decided in December.

Group winners from Leagues B, C and D will be promoted while those who finish last in Leagues A, B and C will be relegated. The groups will be drawn in January 2018. Nations League rankings will then be used to sort the draw pots for subsequent European qualification stages.

“The next qualification process as far as UEFA is concerned, the seeding of the teams will be based on the ranking of the Nations League and no longer on the coefficient,” said Marchetti.

Furthermore, the Nations League will give four teams another chance at qualifying for Euro 2020 through playoff matches scheduled for March of that year.

For the Euros there will be 10 qualification groups from which the top two teams will qualify giving a total of 20. The other four places will be contested by the 16 Nations League group winners.

Eden Hazard Belgium

That should sort out the twin issues of the qualification phases being too long and friendlies not counting for enough. In the longer term, though, there is still little opportunity for UEFA to influence the so-called FIFA calendar and condense the qualification stages to a brief period at the end of the European league season.

“First of all the national teams can only play in the international windows,” said Marchetti. “From experience I can tell you that the international calendar is a very sensitive and delicate matter. It is a very high point of balance which is to be struck between clubs, their leagues and the national teams.

“Obviously everything can be reviewed, improved, certainly I know that this calendar was a balance not easy to be struck. If in the future there will be a review, we will see. For the time being obviously this is not possible because we are not the masters of the calendar.

Article continues below

“The calendar is a worldwide one. UEFA cannot unilaterally decide to play national teams matches on different days or in clusters in June or another period of the year. If there is a new calendar, this calendar will have to be negotiated by the main stakeholders around the world.

“The calendar is the FIFA international calendar. Obviously, everyone has a stake, the confederations of course, the national associations, the competitions, the domestic leagues and the clubs.”

But the Nations League is a start; a chance for UEFA to breathe life back into a moribund international game. 

Next article:
Man Utd team news: Rashford starts for Red Devils against Benfica in Champions League
Next article:
FIFA 18 Ultimate Team of the Week: De Gea & Thiago lead TOTW5
Next article:
U17 World Cup: Brazil 3-0 Honduras: Silky smooth Selecao surge past Los Catrachos
Next article:
Red Star Belgrade vs Arsenal: TV channel, stream, kick-off time, odds & match preview
Next article:
Champions League 2017-18: Fixtures, results, tables & all you need to know
Close