LONDON: World Cup champions France travel to Joachim Loew’s under-pressure Germany on Thursday in an eye-catching start to the inaugural UEFA Nations League, football’s newest competition introduced to replace most international friendlies with few knowing all the details of a complex format.
The Nations League, brainchild of European football body UEFA, aims to boost interest in the autumn and spring internationals, which were seen by clubs and fans as disruptive to the domestic football season.
To be held every two years, it features all 55 of Europes national teams divided into four divisions — Leagues A to D — that are themselves split into four groups, to be played between September and November.
There is promotion and relegation between each league while the top division, which includes France and Germany, will finish with a four-team mini-tournament, to be held in June next year, to decide the Nations League champion.
Initially greeted with scepticism because of its seemingly complex format, it was given a warmer reception by coaches when the draw was made in January, with teams receiving financial bonuses as they progress in the competition.
Groups of three or four teams play home and away on the usual national-team match dates protected by FIFA. Teams in the top-two tiers League A and B, each with four groups of three nations still have dates free for friendlies against teams like Brazil and Argentina.
Lower-ranked teams are all booked up in the four-team groups of Leagues C and D.
The four group winners from League A advance to a Final Four to decide the Nations League champion
The Nations League will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.
It pushes back Euro 2020 qualifying into 2019, and affects the 10 groups to be drawn on Dec. 2 in Dublin.
Top-tier teams going to the Final Four must be in one of the five smaller groups of five teams. That clears their June schedule for the mini-tournament.
The other five Euro 2020 qualifying groups have six teams, using all the FIFA dates to play 10 games from next March through November.
The top two teams in each qualifying group automatically advance to Euro 2020. The remaining four places in the 24-team lineup will be decided in Nations League playoffs in March 2020 when each tier will have a four-team playoff bracket with the winner advancing to Euro 2020.
Playoffs will be for teams that failed to earn a direct Euro 2020 entry through the qualifying groups. Playoff entries will go to Nations League group winners, or teams with the next-best record.
The League A playoffs could be filled by League B teams because most top-tier teams will advance through the traditional qualifying format.
The Germans, world champions in 2014, crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup in Russia in June for their earliest exit in 80 years.
Coach Loew decided to stay on and has pledged to successfully overhaul the team and turn it back onto the road to success, with the Nations League being their new start.
He has added three new players and dropped midfielders Sami Khedira and Sebastian Rudy among others.
But he could not have picked a harder opponent than France, who are brimming with confidence after lifting their second World Cup after their 1998 success.
Boasting some of the world’s most talented players, including Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, it will be France’s first game since being crowned world champions in Moscow on July 14 after a 4-2 victory over Croatia.
Italy, who did not even make it to the World Cup, will start their own road to recovery with a tie against Poland in Bologna on Friday.
Coach Roberto Mancini called up five new players, including 17-year-old Monaco forward Pietro Pellegri.
World Cup semi-finalists England host Spain a day later while Switzerland take on Iceland in the other League A clash on the first matchday.
Portugal will be Italy’s second Nations League opponent on September 10, although the European champions will be without Cristiano Ronaldo, who asked to be left out following his move to Juventus.
Ronaldo scored at least 40 goals a season in the last eight seasons at Real Madrid but has yet to score for his new club.
World Cup finalists Croatia take on Spain in Elche on September 11 in Luis Enrique’s first home game in charge of the country he represented 62 times as a player.
Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018