The international break will see the start of the inaugural UEFA Nations League, which could change international soccer for the better.
It’s fair to say international soccer isn’t what it once was. It used to be seen as the pinnacle of the sport, with the best players on display in front of a global audience. Now, it’s a shadow of its former self because domestic soccer has long overtaken it in terms of quality and entertainment. International breaks are met with groans of disappointment and downright apathy as the momentum of the season is interrupted with national team matches.
The World Cup, Euros and Copa America are all still met with excitement, but that’s largely because they come around only every four years. The time between these tournaments is filled with qualifying matches, which are rarely top quality. There are also friendlies that only the most patriotic, die-hard fans get excited about due to their lack of importance.
UEFA has come up with a solution to these issues, creating the Nations League, which will replace some of the fixtures traditionally used for friendlies. The basic idea is that the 55 European nations have been split into four separate pots based on UEFA national association coefficient rankings.
Each pot has four groups containing either three or four nations, and the teams will play each other home and away between September and November 2018. The four winners from the pot A groups will compete to be the overall champions in June 2019. The winners of the groups, except for those in pot A, will all receive promotion to the league above, while the bottom teams in each group, except for those in pot D, will be relegated.
There are also four Euro 2020 spots up for grabs. The winners of each group in each pot (16 teams overall) will be placed into groups of four, which will compete in a semifinal and final. The winners of those finals will qualify for Euro 2020. This is significant for the small nations in pot D because one of them is guaranteed a route to the Euros. These replace the playoffs for the eight best third-place team from the qualifying groups.
It does become even more complex because a lot of the teams qualified for the playoffs will have already qualified through the traditional route, especially for the top leagues, so they’ll be replaced by the next best team based on the Nations League results.
As you can see, it’s a complicated affair. Is it worth all the hassle? To put it simply, yes. It adds a competitive element to matches which would usually be meaningless, so it addresses a major need for international matches and provides a reason fans should be invested. Most importantly, it ensures teams a playing opponents of a similar caliber.
The success of the Nations League is dependent on how serious the big teams take the competition. It’s unlikely to become as prestigious over time as more established tournaments such as the World Cup and the Euros, but it could bring back some excitement to these midseason international breaks. There will also be another major tournament in the summer between the World Cup and the Euros, so it provides soccer when there’s little else on offer.
Domestic soccer will always have the advantage because of the additional time managers get with teams, which allows them to successfully implement complicated systems. It will reduce the amount of pointless friendlies, though, and that’s a bonus in itself. The matches also allow managers to test new ideas and personnel in a relatively competitive environment, which will be useful for the qualifiers and tournaments. UEFA has the right idea. It remains to be seen whether it can implement it successfully.