Not so friendly after all

Leanne Lu
Written by Leanne Lu

The inaugural Nations League finally kicked off in September, but even now the complicated format has left many confused. WGM breaks down this intriguing new competition.

England defender Harry Maguire was as baffled as the rest of the squad with the new UEFA Nations League competition, so much so that he asked the media for their thoughts. England manager Gareth Southgate reportedly spent a lot of time explaining the complicated format of this inaugural league to his young Three Lions before they finally figured out how the league system works – but even Southgate admitted he had originally struggled to wrap his head around it.

So what exactly is the UEFA Nations League and why was it created? The idea of a Nations League was the brainchild of former UEFA president Michel Platini back in 2013. European football’s governing body wanted to improve the attractiveness of international football, with Platini noting that “friendlies don’t really interest anybody – neither the fans nor the players nor the media nor the national associations.”

Struggling to maintain the allure of international football amid the rising influence of club football, UEFA drove on to make the UEFA Nations League become reality. In its inaugural year, 55 football associations were split into four leagues according to their positions in the UEFA National Team Coefficient Rankings, then a further draw divided each League into groups of three or four.

After playing home and away, the group winners in Leagues B, C and D gain promotion to the League above (D to C, C to B and B to A) while those who finish bottom of the groups in Leagues A, B and C are relegated to the League below. The four group winners in League A will thereafter play in the UEFA Nations League finals next June for the final trophy.

There is more than just one trophy to fight for though – for some countries, the Nations League represents an opportunity to book their ticket to Euro 2020. This is because the play-offs that previously involved the thirdplaced teams from certain Euro qualifying groups will now be replaced by 16 groups winners! In other words, only the top two positions from each group of the Euro qualification campaign matter, with those who fall short needing to find another pathway to the Euros. Which way is easier? Only time will tell.

The Nations League poses some problem for clubs, as players will be more eager to play competitive international games, rather than meaningless friendly matches. Faked injuries, lack of form and rejection from clubs to release certain players were not unusual in the past. Now the players may take more initiatives to put on their national jersey, as every match does matter. As a result, the relationship between national teams and clubs may well decline further.

After England’s debut in the Nations League, both Dele Alli and Luke Shaw were injured and missed the following league matches. Tottenham Hotspur particularly missed Alli’s presence in midfield when days later they were outplayed and outrun by an energetic and skillful Liverpool side. As a club that historically produces many English National team players, Tottenham’s dissatisfaction with the English FA has been evident for quite some time. The North London club will not be so happy to see the start of this TV revenue-driven Nations League.

But for the fans it is a welcoming competition as we can finally forget the boredom generated by the meaningless friendlies of old.

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