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3 reasons why the UEFA Nations League could overtake the European Championship in the future

  • The draw has been made for the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League, but could the new competition eventually overtake the European Championship?
Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
Modified 07 Mar 2020, 20:11 IST

Portugal won the inaugural Nations League in 2019 - but could it become more important than the Euros?
Portugal won the inaugural Nations League in 2019 - but could it become more important than the Euros?

Assuming the Coronavirus doesn’t take complete hold, we’re now just three months away from the start of Euro 2020, a unique international tournament with games across the whole continent before the semi-finals and final match take place in London.

However, this week also saw the draw for the 2020-21 edition of the UEFA Nations League, and while the announcement largely flew under the radar, after the success of the inaugural edition of the competition in 2018-19, it’s hard not to get excited about the fact that instead of meaningless friendly games, we’ll be getting competitive matches like Portugal vs France, England vs Belgium and Italy vs the Netherlands at the end of the year.

So is it possible that in the near future – once the competition is better established – that the Nations League could overtake the European Championships as Europe’s premier international competition? Here are 3 reasons why it could.


#1 It represents a higher level of competition

The Nations League will regularly pit European giants like England and Belgium against one another
The Nations League will regularly pit European giants like England and Belgium against one another

Although Europe’s giants traditionally qualify for the European Championships and tend to dominate the tournament when it does come around, the fact is that for the most part, heavyweight clashes in the competition are reserved for the quarter-finals and onwards at best. With a handful of lower-ranked teams always qualifying, upsets are always possible and so often, games that sound like dream matches on paper don’t end up happening.

The format of the Nations League, on the other hand, ensures that there are always at least two, if not three European superpowers in each of the four groups of League A, and the fact that the competition is separated into four levels means that games against whipping boys should theoretically never exist.

Add in the fact that the teams in each group have to play each other home and away, rather than in a one-off match, and it means that the level of competition is, on paper at least, far higher than the competition in the European Championship tournament.

Essentially, given a little more time to become established, it could well be argued that the Nations League represents an international equivalent to the UEFA Champions League – Europe’s best playing against nothing but the best competition, complete with relegation and promotion to ensure that the competition remains high at all times.


#2 The games are played at a better point in the season

The Nations League sees games take place at a better point in the season than summer tournaments
The Nations League sees games take place at a better point in the season than summer tournaments
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Everyone loves the big international tournaments in the summer – the World Cup and the European Championship – but while they’ve got an incredible amount of history and prestige behind them, it’s hard to shake the idea that in today’s football world – where the club game is valued higher than its international counterpart by the majority of people – that sometimes, summer tournaments can be a step too far for tired players at the end of a hard season.

On many occasions we’ve seen injuries and fatigue affect even the best players in the world on the international stage in the summer; David Beckham (2002) and Wayne Rooney (2006) both underperformed in World Cups following injuries late into the season, while Mo Salah struggled in the 2018 World Cup after suffering a shoulder injury in that year’s Champions League final.

The Nations League, meanwhile, sees its group games played during the early part of the season, when the great majority of players are fresh, the fixtures haven’t started to pile up, and club competitions like the Champions League and Europa League haven’t reached their real business end. Sure, the semi-finals and final of the Nations League are played in the summer – but it’s the group stages where most of the action takes place.

The fact that fans will get to see Europe’s best players, fully fit and fully fresh – for the most part anyway – competing against each other in the early part of the season, as opposed to fatigued and not fully fit in a summer tournament means that in the future, the likelihood is that the Nations League could be seen as a harder competition to win – giving it a big advantage over the European Championship.


#3 The Euros have become watered down due to their expansion

Euro 2016 - won by Portugal - was seen as a weaker and watered down tournament
Euro 2016 - won by Portugal - was seen as a weaker and watered down tournament

A few years ago, a lot of hardcore football fans would’ve suggested that the European Championship was actually a superior tournament to the World Cup, despite the latter having greater international prestige for the obvious reason of it including sides from the world’s other continents. The argument essentially suggested that the majority of the world’s best sides were European anyway, and thus the Euros were the harder tournament to succeed in.

That idea was hard to argue with when the Euros were comprised simply of 16 teams, and tremendous tournaments like Euro 2000 and Euro 2008 definitely gave credence to the claim too. However, Euro 2012 was the final edition of the competition to contain just 16 teams, and Euro 2016, which expanded the field to 24 nations, felt like a much weaker and watered down tournament.

The fact that third-placed teams in the group stage could still qualify for the round of 16 meant that sides like Northern Ireland and Slovakia made it through despite only winning one group match – Northern Ireland actually lost their other two – while eventual winners Portugal went through with three draws to their name. In fact, Fernando Santos’ side didn’t win a match in normal time until the semi-finals.

Essentially, Euro 2016 was one of the most disappointing major tournaments of all time – and while hopes are higher for Euro 2020, the likelihood is that we’ll see a repeat of its predecessor, with weaker sides escaping the group stage after perhaps one good result.

League A of the Nations League however pits Europe’s best 16 teams against each other – with far better results being needed to make the semi-finals due to only the group winners advancing. That alone makes it a harder tournament to win than the European Championship itself – the exact argument that fans once made to put the Euros above the World Cup. Surely it can’t be long, then, before the Nations League is considered the superior competition. 

Published 07 Mar 2020, 20:11 IST
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