The rise of a new league in European football
The Uefa Nations League can be a head-scratcher, but it could also become a nail-biter
Last month, Uefa concluded the team draws for the inaugural Uefa Nations League tournament to be held in 2018-19. Fixtures between all 55 of the Uefa nations will take place from September, and will culminate in…well, several outcomes. The Nations League takes some explaining. But that is if fans and pundits would just give it the time of day.
Football does not, and let us be frank, take kindly to change. Especially not in this age of instant social media analysis and effortless online petitioning. Just ask Leeds United FC, which recently unveiled a new logo for the club and then, just 6 hours later, announced that they were willing to reconsider, following a barrage of online criticism. The logo is risible. But then so much about the branding and marketing of football is. A more legitimate concern is that the club could have used the time and expense on making tickets cheaper.
Change in football is generally abhorred (except when it comes to Arsenal’s manager). And doubly so when change seems to originate from the corridors of the Uefa or Fifa offices. In a recent email newsletter, The Guardian called the Nations League “an international tournament nobody cares about or understands". This is harsh. The Nations League is not intuitive, but neither is it some labyrinthine conspiracy to make more money for Uefa.
In fact, it may well prove to be an entirely worthwhile exercise that will, of course, make money for Uefa. What will the Nations League do? In a nutshell: All 55 teams will be divided into four divisions (A, B, C, D) of four groups each. Each division will comprise teams ranked similarly in the Uefa tables. Teams in each group will play each other at home and away in a league format.
What happens next depends on which division you belong to. The four group winners in division A will get to play each other for the Uefa Nations League championship. The group winners in divisions B, C and D will win promotion to the next division (and, eventually, even a shot at the championship). The bottom teams in A, B and C will be relegated to the next level. As for the teams that finish bottom in Group D, they get to ruminate over their incompetence and wonder if they should take up a less challenging sport.
In addition to prestige, a cup, a chance to play better teams, and a share of TV revenue, there is one more crucial incentive for nations to take the league seriously: a place at the European Championships. Uefa will continue to hold qualifiers for each edition of the Euros. But four places will be set aside for qualification through the Nations League. How will this work?
So, remember the four group winners in each division? Uefa will take a list of these winners and remove everyone who has already qualified for the Euros. Each blank space thus created will be populated by the next best team from each division (what will happen if only three teams are left in division A? A team from division B will get sent up). Once a list of 16 such non-qualifiers is drawn up, they will be broken into four groups of four each, and a series of knockout matches will produce four winners…who will then go to the Euros.
At first glance it all seems needlessly complex. But, for most nations, the Nations League can legitimately be a useful competition. First, they no longer have to play meaningless, poorly attended friendlies to boost their rankings. Second, they will get a chance to play similarly ranked teams, with the added bonuses of both a pathway and incentives for improvement. And finally, many will welcome the second, albeit arduous, route to Euro qualification.
For fans, this means a busy calendar of potentially competitive matches in the years between the Euros and the Fifa World Cup. For players and managers, this could mean greater opportunities at both the club and country levels. Players have often used the Euros or the World Cup to catapult themselves to stardom. Now they have one more launch pad.
Yes, the Nations League can be a head-scratcher. But it could also become a nail-biter.