When UEFA announced the creation of the Nations League, many football fans were up in arms and convinced it was going to be a monumental failure.
These misgivings were baseless in as far as anything to make international friendlies meaningful is a step in the right direction, especially with the added chance for teams to qualify for Euro 2020 by winning their league.
With FIFA and UEFA having been rocked by scandals over the last few years, they desperately needed their respective member nations’ football teams to put on a goodshow. Fortunately, as UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has stated: “The Nations League is even more successful than we thought.”
Here is a recap of how the league works:
- There are 55 nations split up into four different leagues (A, B, C, and D).
- The teams within each league are split further into groups of three or four.
- At the end of the cycle, four teams will be promoted to the next rank up, while another four will be relegated.
- The winners of every pool (if they haven’t already qualified for EURO 2020) have a chance to play the other pool winners in their league for an entry into the European Championship finals.
The results have been exciting and unpredictable
One thing that can be said about the inaugural incarnation of the Nations League is that it delivered on the promise of making international friendly matches interesting and meaningful.
In Group A1, Germany didn’t win a game and was the first team to be relegated while, in Group A2, Switzerland pipped Belgium due to more goals scored.
Two of the biggest surprises were Kosovo, the most recent addition to UEFA,winning their group (D3) and getting promoted to League C, while perennial underachievers Scotland almost went undefeated and will be promoted to League B.
With 333 goals scored in 138 games, who would have thought that Serbia’s Aleksander Mitrovic would be the top scorer with six goals or that Scotland’s James Forrest would be tied as second highest scorer with five?
Nothing is more exciting than unexpected results and this edition of the Nations League has definitely delivered.
The world is watching
The biggest problem with international friendlies was that powerful teams like Italy or France would have to play minnows like San Marino or Gibraltar.
This led to low attendances and, significantly, sagging TV ratings. The average attendance at Nations League games was a little over 16,000 which suggests that European football fans were slow to embrace the new concept.
Estimated television ratings point towards the UEFA Nations League being quite popular in the Americas and in Asia.
Had more people been able to watch the games on terrestrial TV in Europe, instead of the satellite channels like Sky Sports, the ratings could have gone through the roof.
Although the actual ratings haven’t been released to the public, if UEFA’s President is happy with the results, then they must have been pretty good. It will be interesting to see the TV ratings after next year’s play-offs and finals, as well as how much attendances will increase for future editions.
Who will win?
The winners and relegated teams of the four leagues were, as follows:
England, Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal won their groups, with Germany, Iceland, Poland and Croatia relegated.
Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sweden and Denmark won their groups, with Slovakia, Turkey, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland relegated.
Scotland, Finland, Norway and Serbia won their groups, with Estonia, Cyprus, Slovenia and Lithuania relegated.
Georgia, Belarus, Kosovo and Macedonia all won their groups.
League A is likely to hinge on whether or not Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Portugal. On-going rape allegations against him and his age are major factors, so his participation isn’t assured. If he does play, then hosts Portugal will probably be the favourites. England, however, should be able to build on their recent World Cup showing. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they won their first international tournament since the World Cup in 1966.
As for the other Leagues, it is anyone’s guess who will win the respective play-offs for the chance to qualify for Euro 2020.
Denmark should be the favourite in League B, although consistent Sweden should not be discounted.
If they can continue their excellent run of form, Scotland should be able to take C.
League D could be won by any of the teams. Kosovo may be the sentimental favourite due to their recent admission to UEFA.
For an idea that many fans were convinced would soon be a busted flush, the UEFA Nations League has outperformed all expectations.
While qualifying for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup will still inevitably feature lack lustre games, the Nations League has delivered on its promise to turn international friendlies in to exciting, meaningful games.
It is no wonder that the other FIFA federations are scrambling to follow UEFA’s lead and starting their own Nations Leagues.