The majority of football fans and pundits alike seem to have unbounded praise for the new Nations League. But if the tournament is really that much of a success, should it pave the way for the future of how Europe’s national sides qualify for international tournaments?
Internationals with meaning
By now we’re all more than familiar with the in-season international football circuit. Indeed, many of us groan at the prospect of an international football break that disrupts the more exciting, engaging, and largely more entertaining club football season.
The Nations League has set out to disrupt the traditional dual format of qualifiers and friendlies. Often uneven group qualifying matches drag on unnecessarily and prove to be a struggle for the majority of Europe’s small to medium sized footballing nations, while Europe’s larger teams often run away with it unchallenged. Rarely are there surprises, and rarely does it grab your attention, or your imagination.
The qualifiers are one thing, but then there’s the other side of the coin – the friendlies. There doesn’t seem to be a single football fan or pundit alike who sees international friendly matches as something positive. They’re out of date and largely pointless.
What’s more, now the third form of European international football has arrived on the scene, it relegates the international friendly even further down the scale.
Aspirations for all nations
The Nations League has become a breath of fresh air for every European footballing nation. All 55 of UEFA’s European participants who competed in the inaugural version of the competition got something out of it.
Firstly, the organisation of a fresh international tournament every two years, to be played in the gaps between qualifiers allows for more fluid and continual competition for international sides. It provides teams with a constant opportunity to engage in serious matches, in order to reevaluate their players and tactics as a team, and ultimately to evolve.
Secondly, the fact that the Nations League divides teams into separate leagues based on their UEFA coefficient means they now have a chance to compete more equally than in traditional qualifiers. The larger teams have a chance to test their mettle amongst the cream of the crop. Europe’s middling nations can battle it out without the fear of having to play it safe against tougher opposition. Perhaps more endearingly the minnows no longer have to suffer the ignominy of being dished out a drubbing by all and sundry.
Admittedly, it can be confusing and the specific permutations of the competition can be hard to grasp. If you’re struggling or are in need of more in-depth information then be sure to consult this UEFA Nations League complete guide. It’s useful if you need to understand the running order of things or if you need betting tips for a particular match, whether that’s for the finals in June or for the next competition.
Because the Nations League only comprises three teams in each group in League A and four teams in Leagues B, C and D, it seeks to make every match count. On top of that there is the prospect of promotion, relegation or stagnation.
Take Sweden for example in League B, Group 2. Not only was the group wide open until the very last, the Swedes managed two back to back wins to overcome the odds and top their group. Topping their group has rewarded them with promotion to League A and now they get to challenge against the best Europe has to offer and have a solid chance to improve.
In the opposite direction, Germany have been relegated to League B, and will now contest their next Nations League football against the likes of Scotland, Wales, Finland and Norway. Perhaps the Germans haven’t fallen completely from grace but they’ll have to prove themselves to make it back into Europe’s premier league.
All eyes on the finals
The strength of the Nations League has been in the level of competition at every juncture, but the line has been led by Europe’s elite. The top teams have set the example for the rest, and if they hadn’t taken it seriously the inaugural Nations League would perhaps have been viewed differently.
Switzerland, the Netherlands and England threw everything into the pot and all managed to top their respective League A groups at the last minute. They join Portugal in the finals that will decide the winner of the Nations League next June in a four-game mini-tournament. Compare UK bookmakers ahead of the finals visit and you’ll find the odds at the moment are firmly in England’s favour.
Taking place next June in Portugal, the hosts, England, Switzerland and the Dutch will compete for the title. It’s a surprising mix, and perhaps a little odd considering world champions France, stalwarts Germany, and the Spanish are all missing. But don’t for one second think it’s because those missing out didn’t take it seriously. It’s rather a testament of the tenacity and dedication of their opposition that put them through.
The future of the tournament
While many of us are currently singing the praises of the Nations League, as time goes on the novelty of the competition will inevitably wear off. If the Nations League doesn’t begin to represent more, to evolve, and the rewards aren’t deemed sufficient, then national sides will begin to take it less seriously.
After all, competition is the bedrock of our beloved game, but so is the prize at the end of it all. The Nations League has proven a stand out success – for now. But come next year the qualifiers for the next European Championship will begin and it will be back to the drudgery of the old system.
The Nations League is a tighter and stronger competition, that much has been shown. The current consequences of the competition are relegation and promotion for many teams. The ultimate effect of the tournament’s results impinge on a team’s overall ranking and where sides will be seeded for qualifiers. But if the Nations League has proven a success as a competitive entity insofar that teams are taking it seriously, perhaps it should be given more weight.
It should give UEFA food for thought that for the next Nations League in two years time they could seek to increase the stakes and make it a viable way to qualify for major tournaments. After all, it’s a farer and fiercer alternative that’s captured the attention of football fans across Europe on its first try.