Pride and prestige – two factors which may have been reintroduced to some international football on the European continent.
UEFA’s Nations League (NL) has just reached the conclusion of its maiden voyage with Portugal crowned its inaugural victors.
Cristiano Ronaldo and co beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the final in Porto thanks to a second-half strike from Goncalo Guedes. Portugal and Manchester City star Bernardo Silva was named as the Player of the Tournament while the Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong won the Young Player award.
Portugal are also the current European Champions after their victory at the 2016 finals in France. They came through their UEFA NL group against Italy and Poland, playing in the four-team finals in Portugal with England, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The UEFA NL can probably chalk its first tournament down as a success and, yes, it did take away some of the mundanity from the regular international breaks, giving just that little bit more meaning to games.
It also pits nations against teams who are regarded to be of similar strength. League A had four groups. Group A had the Netherlands, France and Germany. Group B had Switzerland, Belgium and Iceland. Group C had Portugal, Italy and Poland while Group D consisted of England, Spain and Croatia.
You can already see how games in those groups would have meant a lot more to fans, players and managers in comparison to friendly fixtures with no relevance.
In League B, the four groups involved teams of a lower ranking level such as Ukraine, Sweden, Bosnia, Denmark, Ireland and more.
League C was the next level and League D the lowest. The real benefit of the NL and why it has that competitive edge we want to see is that it does offer a second opportunity for teams to qualify for the Euro 2020 finals.
The best-placed teams in Leagues A, B, C, and D from the NL who don’t qualify for the European Championships via their normal qualifying groups will have another chance in March 2020.
This means the four best teams in League A of the NL who don’t qualify for Euro 2020 will enter into a semi-final and final playoff system determining one winner and thus a qualifier for Euro 2020.
The same will happen for the four best teams in Leagues B, C and D of the NL standings. Therefore, even teams in Leagues B, C and D will still have a chance of making the European Championship finals next summer.
Yes, it may take a degree to decipher exactly what can happen with the NL or what the exact benefits of it are. But with a little study of the format and some further understanding of what’s on offer, it does actually seem like UEFA may be onto a winner with this format. Anything to improve those international breaks where friendlies are played, eh?
As of now, teams will forget about the NL and focus on the traditional qualifying group as their main route to the finals. If they fail on this road, however, all eyes will check back over their final standings in the NL tables to see if they have another stab at qualifying in March 2020.
There is not much else UEFA, or anyone can do to make those non-competitive international breaks more exciting, besides removing them altogether. But then those international teams would not get the opportunity to play as a team, only at finals. Surely that would have a very negative effect on the quality of football we would then see at the major tournaments? That’s not what we want, either.
The UEFA NL seems to be the best solution currently available in the quest to make international football more meaningful. It’s unclear whether UEFA will stick with the same format in preparation for the Euro 2024 finals or, indeed, if they experiment with something similar again as part of the qualification process for the Qatar 2022 World Cup finals.
UEFA’s big brother, FIFA, would need to be consulted about any possible changes to the route European teams could take to the tournament in Qatar. If it’s agreed with that UEFA seem to be onto a winner with their Nations League, could other worldwide federations introduce something similar in the near future? Don’t bet against it.