Football’s governing bodies, whether they be international or domestic, haven’t half come in for some heavy flak in recent times. And with a large degree of justification, too. Bribery, corruption, hypocrisy, excessive salaries and bonuses, sex scandals, appalling mismanagement… the list of shame is interminable.
But credit where credit’s due and all that. And it is therefore entirely appropriate to doff one’s chapeau to UEFA, the governing body of European football, for introducing its Nations League competition.
Quite possibly like many others, I knew the square root of zilch about the Nations League when the first matches were played in September, even though it was something that had been ratified by UEFA’s Executive Committee almost four years ago. And, frankly, I didn’t understand a whole lot more about it following the opening skirmishes. After all, it’s not the most straightforward format to grasp. But take a few minutes, peel back the layers and it’s a brilliantly designed competition that also appears to have been embraced by management, players and supporters alike.
Remember those mind-numbingly dull and almost utterly meaningless friendlies that countries would play, when leading players were regularly withdrawn by their clubs because of some “niggle” or other? (“Oh, look, Ryan Giggs has been withdrawn from the Wales squad for Wednesday’s friendly. Now there’s a surprise.”) Or those friendlies that England would play when the managers would be allowed to utilise as many as 11 substitutes? (“Well, that certainly proved to be a game of four teams, Brian.”)
Friendlies still exist, but they happen far less frequently. And here are a few more reasons why the Nations League is such a breath of fresh air for European international football:
- The matches are competitive. Managers select strong teams and players want to play – and they most certainly want to win, too.
- Promotion and relegation ahead of the 2020/21 Nations League offer added incentives to succeed.
- The format allows nations to compete against similarly ranked teams.
- The four group winners of League A have silverware to play for. Okay, it’s not the World Cup or the European Championships, but it’s not to be sniffed at, either. The England management and players, not to mention the majority of the 78,000 who were at Wembley on Sunday, certainly seem to think it is silverware worth striving for.
- The Euro 2020 group qualification stages have been condensed into five double match-days spread over eight months rather than the 13 months it took previously.
- The Nations League offers a potential second chance to qualify for Euro 2020 – via the play-offs, to be held in March 2020 – should a country fail to progress to the finals via the 10 qualification groups.
- The structure of the competition means that three “lesser” nations (one from each of Leagues B, C and D) are assured of playing at the Euro 2020 finals via the play-off system. For example, in League D, one of Georgia, Belarus, Macedonia and Kosovo is guaranteed to progress to the finals.
Oh, and Germany were relegated.