Why Dull International Breaks Should Be Replaced with UEFA's Nations League

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Why Dull International Breaks Should Be Replaced with UEFA's Nations League
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In the football journalism community, international breaks are fairly maligned.

Just as they are gaining momentum with their respective domestic clubs, top-flight footballers jet off to their respective countries to join their international squads. For a few days before the matches, there is a huge shortfall in interesting football stories.

Nothing happens. National newspapers are forced to run lead stories about players arriving at hotels, featuring large pictures of bags of gloves.

International breaks, particularly those for friendlies, are disruptive, and not just for the media. How many Premier League managers want their players to fly off to a foreign land and risk injury in a pointless game? How many England players are honestly savouring the prospect of playing Chile on a Friday night, instead of preparing for a league match for their club, the organisation that pays them and with whom they spend most of their waking hours?

Granted, it is necessary for international teams to meet up on a semi-regular basis so they can prepare and qualify for major tournaments. And the current bout of friendlies is being played because several countries have serious World Cup playoffs to contend with.

Yet something needs to change. If we are going to have these frequent disruptions from "real" domestic football, they need to mean something. 

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During the summer, I suggested that World Cup qualification should be turned into a mini tournament to give smaller nations a taste of the tournament atmosphere, and to limit the disruption to the domestic league. I still believe it's a great idea, and it seems that UEFA has picked up on a fairly similar concept.

In October, it was announced that European football's governing body was exploring the idea of jazzing up friendlies by turning them into a "Nations League." The Guardian reported at the time:

The idea, floated at executive committee meetings that preceded a Uefa meeting in Dubrovnik last month, would see Uefa using existing dates for friendlies in the international calendar to launch a new league involving all 54 member nations.

[...]

The new concept, first revealed by Norwegian paper Dagbladet, would see all Uefa's members divided into a series of perhaps nine divisions based on their recent results, with promotion and relegation following each round of matches.

The winner of the first division would be Uefa's Nations League champion and win a substantial prize, with the bottom team in each division being relegated in favour of the winner of the tier below.

The idea is being floated with a view to starting in 2018. The main purpose is to make international football outside of major tournaments more attractive, and frankly, it is a fantastic idea.

In 2016, the European Championships are being expanded from 16 teams to 24. Whether it is a cynical money-making move or a necessary expansion to give more fans and nations the chance to participate on the big stage, it will make qualification less attractive. There will be more places available and therefore less risk for the major teams. 

A Nations League wouldn't counter uncompetitive qualifiers, but it would ensure friendlies wouldn't receive a knock-on effect and become even more dire.

Most importantly, friendlies would no longer be meaningless. The Nations League would hold less importance than tournaments and qualifiers, but it would give players an incentive to play entertaining attacking football and would be a decent reason to abandon their club setup several times a year.

The Nations League wouldn't solve the issue of domestic disruption, but it would have purpose, making it much more palatable for the players and desirable for the fans. 

Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

UEFA, like its bigger brother FIFA, loves making money. A mini league-style tournament would allow it to do this, since it can make it more marketable for television rights and sponsorship purposes. 

The aforementioned Guardian article notes that UEFA recently centralised the TV and marketing rights for internationals, following the same successful model as the Champions League. By playing all the tournament games on successive evenings like the European club competition, it would certainly boost viewers and increase attention around the matches.

(On a good but slightly unrelated point, UEFA has decided to roll out a "week of football" concept from next year, whereby Euro qualifiers will take place across six days to maximise viewership.)

Admittedly, the Nations League idea does have some drawbacks. It may limit the number of friendlies UEFA members play in other continents. It may detract from the glamour of the European Championships and its qualifiers. And, as previously mentioned, it probably wouldn't stop the domestic season from being disrupted. 

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However, it would help rectify the bad reputation that international football is getting, particularly in the UK. We would have an incentive to watch England play a game on a Friday night. Wembley would have less trouble selling tickets for certain games. 

Ultimately, we can't stop international breaks. But we can make them much less dull.

 

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