Is the UEFA Nations League Necessary for Football?

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Following discussions and a decision made back in 2013, the inaugural UEFA Nations League took place across 2018 and 2019. It consisted of four tiers, A,B, C and D which was made up of 12, 12, 14 and 16 teams respectively from 54 European national football associations. League A was won by Portugal who became the first UEFA Nations League Champions.

In this blog I will explore the motivations and reasons behind the creation of this new format of international football and will attempt to understand the potential and possible obstacles or challenges that it has faced or may have to overcome in the future. I aim to assess the necessity and extent of the impact that this new competition has had and will have.

Why Create the Nations League?

The aim of the biennial UEFA Nations League was to take on the role of reviving international football. There had been widespread criticism surrounding the value and utility of international friendlies. Friendlies were taking place that interrupted and halted the European domestic league fixture schedules and attendances had been wavering. These friendlies sometimes saw European giants such as Italy, Spain, Germany and England take on minnows such as San Marino or the Faroe Islands. These were seen as futile and lacking in any meaningful significance for international football as the games tended to begin with a foregone conclusion.

This is why the UEFA Nations League was brought in. Its primary goal was to revitalise international football in the eyes of the fans and reintroduce the utmost importance and second-to-none privilege of a player representing their country in highly competitive international football. The tournament aimed to pit national associations against countries of a similar standard and rather than playing simply for a friendly affair, it was hoped that the competition would add a significant amount of meaningful competitive value to more international football fixtures. Furthermore, this has an additional effect of justifying the interruption of domestic leagues in order to stage international fixtures.

How Does the UEFA Nations League Work?

After the inaugural 2018-2019 UEFA Nations League, the format was immediately changed. The new regulations and system now facilitates 55 European Football Associations (there were 54 in the 2018-2019 competition). These are still split into the four leagues although the volume of teams in each tier has changed. There are now 16 teams, split into four groups of four, in leagues A, B and C whilst there are just 7 nations in league D. These 7 nations include the likes of San Marino, Faroe Islands and Gibraltar, who are unable to compete on a level playing field with the top ranked countries in leagues A and B.

The ‘Nations League Access List’ is used to determine which teams are put into which league and which group. Based upon a country’s previous year’s success, results and their national association ranking, they are placed into four pots for each league. The names are drawn from these pots in order to allocate a group to each competing country.

Each team will then compete against the three other members in their group in both a home and away fixture. In the 2022-2023 edition of the competition, these group fixtures will take place in June and September of 2022, allowing for the winter FIFA World Cup schedule. The knockout finals will then occur in June in the summer of 2023. In total, the competition produces 168 highly competitive and appealing international fixtures. This is demonstrated by the average of 2.41 goals per game, which equates to a goal every 37 minutes on average and hence, has seen consistent interest from European and global football fans.

There is significant reward or consequence for a national team’s success or failure in the UEFA Nations League. The four group winners in league A qualify for the knockout finals and aim to join Portugal (2018-2019) and France (2020-2021) as winners of the UEFA Nations League. There is an emphasis on motivation to reach this stage as one of the countries in the top four will be given the financial and social benefits of hosting the knockout stages. The group winners of B, C and D will also gain promotion into the corresponding higher league. Similarly, those that finish at the bottom of their group in leagues A and B will be relegated to the lower league. Only two countries will be relegated from league C to take the place of the two group winners of League D that are promoted. These two relegated sides are decided by a play-off process between the four countries that finished last in their groups in league C.

Is it Necessary?

The biggest question around the necessity of the UEFA Nations League is whether or not it is having the desired impact upon international football and whether there is an alternative approach to the international stage that is necessary for greater benefit to competing associations. The argument here is whether friendlies are a better way of allowing national team managers to rotate their squads and give sufficient rest to those that play an unforgiving domestic season as well. The competition still facilitates warm-up games for major international competitions but does place more pressure and demand upon the players at other times when they are more likely to be rested or be under less scrutiny in friendlies. It could be argued in this instance that perhaps it indicates another benefit of the nations league in highlighting the depth that countries have. Managers can continue to rotate their starting XI’s but still with the ambition and competitive will to win and hence leading to a rise in the standard and intensity of the international fixtures that was previously faltering through purely friendly games.

The competition has also been labelled as a response to FIFA’s suggestion that there should be a biannual world cup rather than one that takes place every four years. This claim seems to be materialising as the 10 South American CONMEBOL associations are confirmed to be competing in the 2024-2025 edition of the competition although the exact format it will take has not been finalised. Presumably countries such as Brazil and Argentina will enter league A. It is likely to divide opinion under the possibility that it could be seen as undermining the pinnacle of the world cup and its value as the most important competition in football.

It has been suggested that perhaps the Nations League could become implemented into the system for European Championship and World Cup qualification that it is currently detached from. This would position the UEFA Nations League as simply part of the stepping stones towards the major tournaments and would avoid the suggestion that it is of similar worth. Winners or overperformers in the Nations League could possibly be given second chances or alternative pathways into the two major competitions.

Summary and Questions

In summary, the principle aims and motivation behind the UEFA Nations League is admirable. A competition that improves the standard, attractiveness and significance of international football is positive. However there are several questions that remain around the necessity and impact of the tournament that are worth thinking about:

  1. Does the Nations League prevent players being able to be rotated and places too high of a demand and pressure upon them?
  2. Should the Nations League be completely detached from the World Cup and European Championship qualification process?
  1. Will introducing CONMEBOL nations be counterproductive for the significance of the tournament?
  2. Could the Nations League ever overtake the World Cup as the biggest tournament in football?
by Dr. Erkut Sogut & Jamie Khan

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