So here we are then stuck in the middle of the most annoying of Interlulls (© Arseblog), the one that halts the season just as it is starting and we are all getting ourselves back into the familiar football routine. UEFA will claim that this time they are endeavouring to make it slightly less stultifying boring for us with the newly created European Nations League.
The core intention of this new competition is apparently not to confuse us all, but to do away with “meaningless friendlies”, yet the very structure of the competition means that for those leagues made up for the most part of groups of three teams there will always be one team not involved in a competitive fixture each matchday, who will then…yes you guessed it… play a friendly!
Even trying to understand the format of the tournament is, to quote esteemed football writer Martin Samuel: “migraine-inducing”. The fifty-five UEFA-affiliated nations are divided into four leagues, based on their UEFA co-efficient rankings and are then sub-divided into four groups within their league. Confused? You have seen nothing yet!
The winner of each group in League A (the top-ranked teams) then contest the UEFA Nations League Finals, basically two semi-finals, a final and a dead rubber third-place playoff (of course!). The teams finishing bottom of each group in each league are relegated to the league below to be replaced by the teams finishing top of the groups, still following? No me neither!
If that wasn’t difficult enough to fathom, the Nations League is also rather bizarrely linked to qualification for the Euro 2020; the draw for that will be made in December and the group matches will take place between March and November 2019. As would be expected the top two teams in each of the ten groups will qualify for the finals tournament with the remaining four qualifying spots being decided through a convoluted play-off process based on performance in the Nations League but excluding those teams that have already qualified? Lost? Join the club!
The entire conception begs the question of what exactly the point is? It rings of yet another desperate attempt by UEFA to generate interest (read commercial revenue) in the international game outside of the actual major summer tournaments. Do we honestly believe that the team that eventually ‘triumphs’ will regard their achievement in the same way as winning the World Cup or the Euros? Or will it be consigned to the same level of apathy, if not disdain, that the Confederations Cup and the overly long and boring European qualification phases for the major tournaments attract?
The PR hype will tell us that on the face of it, sub-dividing national teams and pitting them against opponents of a similar quality should make the matches more interesting and better to watch. Indeed as I argued on these pages a couple of years ago (https://football-nerd.org/2016/10/06/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-not-another-insufferable-international-break/), the way to make the qualification phase more interesting is surely to increase the competitiveness of the matches and groups. It seems fairly obvious to me that this could be achieved by increasing the number of groups and reducing the number of teams in each group while at the same time having a pre-qualifying phase for lower ranked teams.
Instead, what we have now got is a similar qualifying process to that which bored everyone to tears last time out combined with the addition of what would seem to be a pretty much meaningless competition. If that wasn’t bad enough, those teams who aren’t successful in the qualifying proper have a potential backdoor route through the Nations League with the allocation of sixteen play-off spots based on performance in the Nations League. In theory the four group winners in each Nations League division will compete in each league-specific path, however if the group winners have already qualified their place will go to the next best team from that group, or if all the teams in the group have qualified, to the next best unqualified team which may be from the league below.
This mystifyingly complicated process means that there is the very real prospect that the four group winners from League D (the lowest ranked teams), unless they somehow qualify through the more traditional route, will face each other for a place in the finals, as group winners cannot face a team from a higher league. To put that into real terms that could be the likes of: Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus and Georgia; and we thought the expansion to twenty-four teams in 2016 had diluted the quality!
From an England perspective, with a newly buoyant mood surrounding Gareth Southgate’s squad, after their admirable, if somewhat fortunate, success in Russia; hopes will be high that more competitive matches will allow them to continue their development much more than friendlies and gentle strolls against low-ranked teams in qualification would. Although having been placed in a group with not only Spain but also their conquerors in Russia, Croatia, topping the group and qualification for the semi-finals is by no means guaranteed. However, even if things went badly wrong in the Nations League and England finished bottom of their group, they would still be confident of finishing in the top two of their Euros qualifying group or failing that sneaking through the back door by claiming one of the Nations League qualifying spots.
The question is therefore will the Nations League really make European international football more competitive or will it simply ensure that none of the big teams miss the party?