UEFA first mooted the idea of an entirely new competition in 2011. Faced with the suffocating grip of the club game and the disinterest for friendlies by fans and even some players, the governing body wanted to incentivize the game again and with a bit of shapeshifting the result was the nations league, a four-tier competition, which will use six international dates by the end of November, with a group stage that funnels into a four-team finals competition next June.
The Nations League will be played in an ‘empty’ season, when there is no World Cup or Euro.
How it works
The 55 European nations have been arranged into four tiers based on their UEFA ranking with each tier split into four leagues of three or four teams. League A contains the top teams, League D the bottom-ranked sides. In 2018, the countries will play each other home and away in a 10-week period between between September and November.
The Nations League embraces a system of promotion and relegation: the team finishing top of each section being promoted to a higher tier and the nation finishing bottom dropping down one.
The four group winners in League A will go on to play in a finals play-off in June 2019. This, for example, could bring together France, Belgium, Italy and England to decide the first winner of the Nations League.
So far, so good, but here comes to tricky part. The Nations League also offers a path to Euro 2020 with the final four places decided via play-offs between the winners of the 16 Nations League groups in 2018.
Those playoffs are not the finals playoffs between the League A elite countries, but these precious Euro spots will be contested in separate playoffs.
Each league, A to D, will have its own play-off competition with single-leg semi-finals and a final as a path to Euro 2020. The draw for those playoffs, deciding the host venue, will take place in November 2019.
If the winners of a Nations League group have already qualified for Euro 2020 via the qualifying groups, their place in the play-off will go to the next best team in their Nations League group that has not secured a place. League D may supply a debutant for Euro 2020, unless Latvia are the eventual beneficiaries. The Latvians qualified for Euro 2004 in Portugal.
The other competitors in League D, with a major chance to qualify for the first time for a major tournament, are Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino and Gibraltar.
Euro 2020 overlap
The Nations League will run simultaneously to qualifying for the 2020 European Championship. That qualification campaign will begin in March 2019, with countries split into 10 groups of five or six, and the top two teams in each group qualifying for the finals.
UEFA director of competition Giorgio Marchetti said: “It is a new competition and like every newborn it takes time to establish itself, settle down and be recognised, but we think we have good ingredients for success.
“This will turn most of the friendlies into competition matches and that will be a much better proposition for fans.”
Whether that is the case remains to be seen, but CONCACAF also adopted the formula and from the touchline FIFA is watching keenly, plotting a global equivalent.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com
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