On Thursday a report in The Guardian revealed UEFA is considering a “radical overhaul” of international football that would see a new competition start up in 2018.
Known as the “Nations League,” the tournament would divide the body’s 54 members into nine divisions and matches would take place on FIFA friendly dates. Promotion and relegation would mirror the club football setup.
UEFA are floating the idea for two reasons: (1) They are keen to maintain interest in football during the much-maligned friendly dates; (2) They see enormous revenue potential from television rights
In March 2012 the BBC divulged that UEFA would be centralizing the media rights for European qualification matches for both the World Cup and European Championship beginning in 2014—a measure that would allow broadcasters to buy television rights directly from UEFA instead of its members.
In other words, UEFA now stand to benefit directly from televised internationals, just as they already do from their own Champions League and Europa League competitions.
Financially, European football’s governing body can anticipate a cash windfall if the idea becomes reality. But would a Nations League be good for the sport?
At present FIFA mandates anywhere between five and seven international matchday periods each calendar year—each between one and five days in length. Nations League matches would be contested instead of friendlies; qualification fixtures would be left untouched.
England, for example, played four friendlies in 2013, and given that each of the Nations League’s proposed divisions would have six sides it follows that the schedule would include five matches.
That’s more international football; not less.
But the idea could also end up inhibiting a national association’s planning for everything from tournament preparation to squad development.
A lower-ranked nation—Malta, for example, or Albania or Moldova; even Scotland or Wales—should not be prevented from scheduling friendly matches against superior opposition in an attempt to give its players experience against the best sides on the continent.
The nature of football is upwardly-mobile (thus the existence of promotion), and even Europe’s bottom-feeders should, and should be encouraged to, aspire upwards rather than remain stagnant by being force-fed matches in Division 8 or 9.
But there are repercussions for the big setups as well.
In advance of a World Cup the likes of Germany, Italy and Spain should be able to schedule friendlies they believe will help them in the Group Stage.
If, for example, Germany are grouped with Cameroon and fancy a preparation game against Ghana or Gabon, they should be able to schedule the match rather than fulfill a Nations League appointment against England or France.
What it all boils down to is a shifting in the power balance from the national associations to the centralized body. And that’s disturbing.
When it comes to determining a friendly fixture list the national associations know better than UEFA what their needs and aspirations are.
In this regard they are best left to their own devices.
The proposed Nations League divisions, as revealed by Owen Gibson of The Guardian:
Division 1: Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal
Division 2: Russia, Greece, Croatia, Sweden, France, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Division 3: Ukraine, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Hungary, Czech Republic
Division 4: Republic of Ireland, Serbia, Norway, Slovakia, Turkey, Israel
Division 5: Slovenia, Austria, Romania, Montenegro, Poland, Finland
Division 6: Scotland, Armenia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus
Division 7: Wales, Northern Ireland, Albania, Iceland, Lithuania, Macedonia
Division 8: Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Kazakhstan
Division 9: Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar