With the marvellous Russian FIFA World Cup having just ended, attention is now turning to the new international competition which will begin in September 2018: the UEFA Nations League. This competition, which involves the 55 member associations of UEFA, aims to replace international friendlies but has elicited mixed reactions from club managers, national coaches and the public.
By Derek Aubert and Khalil Karzazi
The Nations League: how does it work?
The Nations League, adopted in 2014 by UEFA, will be organised every two years (the odd years, those without World Cup or Euros).
The 55 nations are divided into 4 leagues (leagues A, B, C, D), according to their UEFA coefficients, where the highest ranking nations are in the league A and the lowest ranking nations are in league D.
Within each league, there are 4 groups of 3 or 4 nations.
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4|
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Republic of Ireland
In each group, the national teams play each other home and away.
In league A, the four winners of each group will qualify for the Final Four competition, which will include two semi-finals and one final. The winner of the final will be crowned Nations League champion and become holder of the Nations League trophy.
National teams can also be promoted and relegated to higher or lower leagues. In leagues B, C, D, each group winner is promoted to the next higher division for the next tournament whereas in leagues A, B, C, each team placing last in its group is relegated to the next lower division (except for in league C where the worse team placing third in the league is also relegated).
The Nations League: a new way for small teams to qualify for the Euros
The Nations League will replace the Euros qualifying play-offs.
As usual, the top two teams from the 10 Euros qualification groups, so 20 teams among 24, will automatically qualify. The remaining four places will be allocated to the Nations League, regarding the team ranking in each league (one team by league). In each league, 4 teams, not qualified for the Euros yet, will participate in play-offs (two semi-finals and one final).
This new system allows a team in league D to qualify for the next Euros.
The Nations League: a burden for clubs ?
Some club managers worry about this new competition. According to them, it will bring more physical tiredness to international players and the injury risks may increase. Jürgen Klopp recently expressed his concerns in the Guardian about the succession of international competitions saying: “They play the World Cup, then the Nations League, next summer is the final of the Nations League which is really crazy. Everything is now so important in football and we have to collect their bones afterwards, more or less.”
Furthermore, the nations coaches will be more disposed to keep their stars on the pitch in order to be more competitive. How are Tottenham going to take the news that Denmark are refusing to substitute Eriksen after half-time because they need to beat Wales for promotion to division A?
A golden egg for the UEFA and the end of international friendlies?
International friendlies have become less attractive over the years due largely to the extensive use of substitutes and perception that “friendly” means “non-competitive.” The creation of the Nations League vows to make them less frequent. Nevertheless, international friendlies allow nations coaches to include in their selection new young players, to build a team and to play games without pressure. Moreover, it will become more difficult for European nations to play games against countries of others continents.
The drive behind the Nations League is also to centralize the TV rights and to make international matches lucrative for UEFA. This is likely to be successful as has been the change in the number of teams in the Euros (from 16 to 24 nations) which has increased the revenues of the UEFA by 37%.
A competition approved by national coaches
For the national coaches, this new competition is a godsend. At last, between major tournaments their sides will be able to meet teams on an equivalent level and their players should become more focused on international games. Gareth Southgate said : “I think there’s a real buzz about it because the top-level teams want competitive games and the teams in the other leagues get a realistic challenge too.”
For the major nations, it’s an additional opportunity to improve their prize list. Didier Deschamps, the coach of the new World Champion team, speaks about this prestige : “We knew we would face top teams. There are prestigious games ahead – that’s all this competition is about. “
The weak teams are delighted to have a new chance to take part in the Euros. Christophe Berra of Scotland (now firmly amongst Europe’s weaker teams) described this as an “intriguing prospect”. Moreover, the group’s homogeneity is also a help for these nations, as Southgate underlines: “You play in competitive games where you might start to win more and gain confidence that way, which is important for their development as a country”.
The Nations League is undoubtedly an exciting competition with many advantages. It could bring a resurgence of interest in international games but, on the other hand, resistance from top clubs seems to be inevitable with more possibilities of injuries to key players the major downside.
England matches in the UEFA Nations League
England vs Spain – 7.45 pm, Saturday, September 8, 2018
Croatia vs England – 7.45 pm, Friday, October 12, 2018
Spain vs England – 7.45 pm, Monday, October 15, 2018
England vs Croatia – 2 pm, Sunday, November 18,2018