After a hectic opening to 2018/19, it’s already time for the first international break of the season. Usually, big fans of the club game tend to dread this period as it cuts right into the early part of the season just as it appears to hit full flow, but that isn’t necessarily the case this time around.
After a fantastic World Cup that practically every football fan agreed was brilliant to watch, interest in the international game is arguably at its highest point in over a decade. And what’s more, for fans of European teams at least, this international break will see the beginning of the new UEFA Nations League.
Plenty has been said about this new international competition – some positive, some negative – but it certainly makes a change to the usual round of somewhat tedious international fixtures we get in September. Here are 5 reasons why the Nations League is a great idea.
#1 It adds more competition and better fixtures to the international calendar
One of the reasons that international breaks in the season are usually so despised by a lot of fans is that they simply feel pointless. Outside of the big tournaments like the World Cup and European Championship, the international breaks tend to be filled with either meaningless friendly fixtures, or qualifying games for those big tournaments featuring the bigger nations squashing lower-ranking ones. In both cases, the interest level is low.
The UEFA Nations League is hoping to change all that. Designed to limit the number of friendly matches – although there will still be some in the fixture list – the new competition places all 55 nations recognised by UEFA into four separate leagues based on pre-World Cup 2018 rankings, and within these leagues teams will be placed into groups of either 3 or 4 and play one another home and away.
The team that finishes bottom of each group – outside of League D – will be relegated to the league below them, while the team that finishes top – outside of League A – will be promoted into the league above them. And for League A group winners, there’s a mini-tournament to decide the overall Nations League champion, but we’ll get to that later.
So how does this improve the fixtures from a fan’s point of view? Well, not only does it mean that we get more competitive international matches, but it also means that European heavyweights will be playing one another more often. The opening round of games, for instance, sees England face Spain, Germany taking on France, and Portugal against Italy. Sounds better than England vs. San Marino and Germany vs. Lithuania, right?
#2 It gives fans something to look forward to in summers without big tournaments
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2017 – if you’re a big fan of the England national team, you were probably glued to the television watching the U-20 team win their version of the World Cup. But for as good as that tournament was, it didn’t really come close to the real World Cup this summer, nor Euro 2016 from the year before. For fans of the international game, every year ending in an odd number means a summer of boredom, basically.
That is, until now. With the advent of the Nations League, each odd-numbered summer will now see a mini-tournament between the winners of the groups in League A – otherwise known as the ‘Final Four’ tournament. This mini-tournament will consist of two semi-finals, a third-place playoff and a final game to decide the overall winner of the Nations League.
Of course, only 4 teams can be involved in this – the teams that don’t win their group will be playing regular qualifiers, either for the European Championship or World Cup – but for fans of the teams that make it, it could turn into a very big deal.
If you’re an England fan, for instance, just imagine a mini-tournament in the summer of 2019 pitting the Three Lions against Belgium, Portugal and France. It’s practically like making the semi-finals of the Euros or the World Cup, right? Well, not quite, but it still sounds like a lot of fun – and adds a lot of intrigue into what used to be a dull part of the football calendar.
#3 It might put an end to un-earned international caps
Over the years, one reason why international friendlies have become so maligned is that they seemingly allow for too much experimentation. Sure, it’s nice for an international boss to be able to play around to find the correct formation or tactics for his team with less pressure than there would be during a competitive game, but due to the current rules allowing six substitutions in friendly games, some players have probably picked up caps they didn’t necessarily deserve.
Granted, the days of a team like Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England being able to make a full 11 substitutes at half-time have been gone since 2004, but even so, being able to use even six substitutes in a friendly match is jarring for the fans and can often spoil the flow of a game.
With less friendly fixtures and more competitive games due to the Nations League, though, international managers are surely far more likely to select their strongest side for each fixture – and much less likely to experiment for the sake of it. Not only will this preserve the integrity of international football, it should make for far better games.
To add to this, it’s probably less likely that a player would withdraw from an international squad for a competitive fixture in contrast to a friendly. For instance – at the time of writing – the only players to withdraw from England’s squad for their upcoming Nations League game with Spain are Adam Lallana (who has had long-term injury issues) Raheem Sterling.
#4 It should stop glamour sides from missing out on the Euros
Think back to Euro 2016 for a second – while it wasn’t a vintage tournament in terms of the quality of football that was played, it was cool to see sides like Wales, Hungary, Iceland and Albania – sides that wouldn’t usually qualify for big tournaments – appear in the competition, with some of them even doing quite well for themselves. But one negative point was that one of Europe’s traditional glamour sides – the Netherlands – didn’t make it.
Sure, they only had themselves to blame as they finished 4th in a qualifying group behind the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, but let’s be honest – the tournament felt weird without them, didn’t it?
Well – as shady as this might seem to some fans – due to the Nations League, the likelihood of a European Championship without a glamour side is now probably slim. That’s because the Nations League links into the Euro qualifiers, albeit in a somewhat convoluted fashion.
Basically, the Euro 2020 qualifiers – which take place in March, June, September, October and November 2019 – will see the teams split into ten groups of either 5 or 6 sides, with the top two sides in each group qualifying. That produces 20 teams – so where do the other 4 sides come from?
The Nations League, of course. So if a team fails to qualify for the Euros the old-fashioned way, but wins their Nations League group, then they automatically make a playoff round to qualify for the tournament. The big caveat? If the Nations League group winner has already qualified, then the next best side of that group makes the play-off round.
So returning to the Netherlands for a second. Even if they finish bottom of their Nations League group – which features France and Germany – assuming those two giants qualify, the Netherlands would automatically make the Euro 2020 playoffs. And that means the likelihood of them missing Euro 2020 is much smaller than before.