"Argh, the international break!”
Anyone who follows league football would be familiar with this feeling. The international break, which comes around once every two months, is traditionally a pause from league football for one weekend to cater for some international friendlies. Occasionally, a World Cup or a Euro qualifier would pop up, but most of the time it’s just drab non-rubbers between second string international sides. Imagine going from watching the El Classico one weekend to watching Germany B take on Macedonia the next. That’s precisely how football fans felt.
To rectify this situation, UEFA announced in 2014 that a third major international tournament will be introduced for European teams in addition to the FIFA World Cup and the European Championships. This tournament was branded the UEFA Nations League, and was initiated in September this year.
The newly introduced UEFA Nations League is a glimpse into the future of international football
The format of the UEFA Nations League is somewhat confusing, leaving followers, players, and even officials scratching their heads. However, since the league is expected to become a permanent part of the annual footballing calendar, everyone will quickly become accustomed to its rules and format.
All 55 member nations of UEFA are divided into four leagues; each further subdivided into four groups. The leagues are named A, B, C and D. ‘A’ being the highest ranked and ‘D’ the lowest. The division of teams into leagues was carried out according to their official FIFA rankings. The top two leagues contain three teams in each group. League ‘C’ has one group with three teams, and three groups with four teams. League ‘D’ contains four teams in all its groups.
All the teams in a group play each other home and away, competing to finish top of their group. The winners of each group earn promotion to the league directly above them, while those already in League ‘A’ qualify for the semifinals. Similarly, the bottom placed team in each group is relegated to the league directly below them.
The top four teams qualifying for the semifinals will be drawn into two matches, which will take place during the summer. The winners of the semifinals will face each other in the final. The semifinals and final of the 2018/19 season are scheduled to be held in Portugal in June, 2019.
The format of the UEFA Nations League is designed so as to make sure that it stays competitive throughout. Members of each league receive a solidarity payment with respect to the league they’re in. Thus teams from League ‘A’ receive a bigger amount than teams from League ‘B’ and so on. In addition, the team which tops their respective group and earns promotion wins a bonus equal to the solidarity payment. The top four teams which contest the semifinals receive extra bonuses, with the winning team pocketing a cool €6 million.
Moreover, the Nations League provides an alternate route for teams to qualify for the European Championships. One team from each league will earn a spot in the Euros, after contesting playoffs against teams from other groups. Top ranked teams from each group will participate in the playoffs, unless the winner of a group has already qualified for the tournament. In that case, the highest ranked team in the group not having qualified is promoted to the playoffs. This system will allow smaller nations a chance to play with Europe’s elite footballing nations; all the while allowing the big names a second chance in case they fail to qualify directly.
The seeding of all the nations for division into qualification groups will be done based on their rankings in the Nations League. The Nations League might be linked to the FIFA World Cup in a similar fashion in the future too. Furthermore, increased broadcast rights and extended coverage of these matches generates a hefty amount of revenue, which will help smaller national football associations strengthen.
NATIONS LEAGUE 2018/19
The Nations League kicked off in September, 2018, once the dust from the World Cup had settled. In the top league, World Cup winners France joined Germany and the Netherlands in Group 1; Switzerland, Iceland and Belgium made up Group 2; Portugal, Poland and Italy constituted Group 3; while Group 4 pitted together Spain, Croatia and England.
The league matches took place from September 6 to November 20. Unlike previous years, the international break this year brought forth the battle of the outgoing World Cup winners and the current winners in Germany versus France, a British Isles derby in Wales versus Republic of Ireland, and a cracker in the shape of Switzerland versus Belgium, which ended 5-2 in favour of the hosts.
Top ranked teams from each group will participate in the playoffs, unless the winner of a group has already qualified for the tournament. In that case, the highest ranked team in the group not having qualified is promoted to the playoffs.
Come December, the groups have taken their final shape. While a few familiar sides have topped their tables, like Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, there are a few surprises. The Netherlands, who failed to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, overpowered the two most recent World Cup winners and finished top to qualify for the semifinals. In Group 2, Switzerland produced the result of the tournament to oust Belgium 5-2 and thus edge them out on goal difference. Portugal made light work of Italy and Poland to sweep through Group 3, while England continued their good form to advance from a Group 4 also hosting World Cup finalists Croatia and 2010 World Cup winners Spain.
In League B, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark and Sweden finished atop their respective groups and will replace Germany, Iceland, Poland and Croatia in League A. Similarly, in League C, Scotland, Norway, Serbia and Finland earned promotion to League B by winning their respective groups. And in League D, Georgia, Macedonia, Belarus and the newest member of UEFA, Kosovo, made the leap to League C courtesy topping their groups.
UEFA Nations League is, in short, a glimpse into the future of international football. At a time when the importance of international fixtures was waning, and public interest in international matches had reduced to the extent of continental championships and the FIFA World Cup, this breathes a new life into competitive national team football. The added incentives will play their part in making sure that the games remain competitive, first-team players take to the pitch every match day and thus the interest built does not diminish.
The writer tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 9th, 2018