UEFA endured a good deal of criticism when launching the Nations League. There were complaints over the merits of a new international competition when European teams already had the World Cup and European Championship to deal with.
There was widespread confusion over the format of the new competition, which would bring promotion and relegation to the international game, as well as a new method for sorting seeds for the Euros.
Friendly dates were drifting listlessly but there was little expectation that the Nations League would do anything to alleviate that. The Nations League, however, has defied all expectations: it has breathed new life into international weeks in the absences of qualification matches.
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“The feedback has been very positive,” Giorgio Marchetti, UEFA’s deputy general secretary, tells Goal. “This competition has impressed many people.
"One of the objectives was to turn the interest-free friendlies into very interesting matches. I don’t want to appear as immodest, but I think it’s been achieved because the matches were even more meaningful than people expected.”
Teams ranked No.1 in Europe and No. 55 in Europe have been given something meaningful to play for, whether it’s a spot in next summer’s final four tournament in Portugal, promotion or a play-off slot for Euro 2020. And the matches in the last matchday, in particular, gave UEFA the type of drama it could have only dreamed of.
“You see what happened in some of these rounds and I’m not just talking about the matches of League A," Marchetti enthuses. "Incredible clashes, incredible comebacks, the interest was alive to the very end of the very last match.”
The Netherlands, Switzerland, England and Portugal will contest the mini-tournament next June but it took until the last moments of the last games before three of those four places were assured.
Harry Kane’s winner for England against Croatia turned that group entirely on its head. Switzerland somehow overcame Belgium by a score of 5-2 when Roberto Martinez's side had been 2-0 up and making plans for Portugal. And Virgil van Dijk’s last-gasp equaliser against Germany meant world champions France would have no chance of adding to their World Cup title for the time being.
Add to that the relegation of Germany from the top flight and you have as much drama – and more – as you would expect from the club game.
Meanwhile, teams like Belarus, Georgia, Macedonia, Finland and Norway have already been funnelled into the playoffs for Euro 2020. That is not something generally available to teams of their ranks but comes as a key benefit to competition in the Nations League.
“It is definitely an extra, super-important motivation,” Marchetti says. “Of course, this was extremely important for all the teams, but even beyond that everyone feels that they have something to compete for.
“By winning the league you get promotion and you get some more money, which means we have found all the possible incentives for the teams. I think the fans have understood it too.”
Indeed, that understanding was tested in the early days when players such as Harry Maguire admitted that they weren’t entirely sure about the competition’s format. Things, however, should appear much clearer now it’s been completed.
“Every time we change, it’s difficult to get an understanding,” Marchetti says. “But it’s not difficult to understand.
"The system that we have taken for this international competition is nothing worse or nothing less than a normal league system as applied to clubs, everywhere in every country.”
UEFA has also had to deal with Jurgen Klopp’s “pointless” jibe as well as constant chirping from critics who claimed the new tournament would mean nothing to players, coaches or fans. The Nations League – in many ways – was written off before it had begun.
“Of course, everyone has a point of view and the point of view of a club manager is not necessarily the same as a coach of a national team,” says Marchetti. “This is a very meaningful competition for sure.”
Once the Euro 2020 tournament winds down, there will be another opportunity to do it all over again. That said, there may be room for some minor adjustments for the 2020-21 edition.
“You always have to learn lessons,” Marchetti says. “There is nothing which is perfect and everything is open to improvement.
“We will definitely be debriefing about the Nations League, thinking about the future. We will never stand still. Whenever there is something to improve, to make the competition better, we will go for it.
“We will be brainstorming about the Nations League. We will try to identify if there is anything we can do to make it even better.”
And, even as FIFA president Gianni Infantino mulls over replacing the Confederations Cup and Europe’s top clubs reportedly moot a breakaway Super League, UEFA is reasonably assured that the Nations League is here to stay.
“The Nations League has been accommodated comfortably in the dates of the international match calendar,” Marchetti says.
“We don’t anticipate any possible change. Of course, the calendar can also be optimised but the space for national teams will be there.
“And we are just planning ahead for the future to have the Nations League which is established now. And definitely one of the must-haves in the international landscape.”
Overall, UEFA could not be happier about the first edition of the Nations League. Indeed, when asked to give the inaugural competition a score out of 10, Marchetti quips, “Can I say 10?!
“It’s not me saying that. I have read many, many pieces about the Nations League. The media are usually very demanding and I’ve seen widespread praise for the Nations League from different countries, coming from many sources, different journalists.
“If this is what the opinion leaders think, the media thinks and the fans think, then it’s very good. At UEFA, we are very happy that the Nations League has been introduced and we are very happy that all matches count for national teams. It’s a good asset to look after.”