UEFA Must Learn Lesson of Europa Letdown to Make Nations League a Success

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UEFA Must Learn Lesson of Europa Letdown to Make Nations League a Success
Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

Far too often in the middle of the season, football fans are left frustrated by a week-long, or even two-week-long, break from domestic action as international friendlies and fixtures take centre stage.

While a major tournament is another matter entirely, how many fans get excited these days by watching England take on Sweden or Denmark in a friendly?

Probably not all that many is the answer—which is why the proposed UEFA Nations League represents such an opportunity for in-season international football. If it is to be a success though, UEFA have a lot to get right between now and the start date of 2018, as per BBC Sport.

What do we know?

Not everything, that's for sure. In fact, not even most of the details.

It seems there will be four divisions, with relegation and promotion between those divisions. However, there will also be pools of three or four nations within each division, with the winners of each pool in the top division playing off in a "final four" group to determine an overall winner.

All told, this essentially makes the Nations League a third international tournament to compete in, over a sustained period of time presumably—a final four every two years is the expectation at present.

Avoiding a Europa League scenario

First and foremost, UEFA have not entirely been convincing that they have all the answers.

Re-branding, re-formatting and abolishing old tournaments...football changes regularly and quickly, and UEFA seem slow to react at times to go with what those who watch and participate in football deem as "the common good," or even the common interesting.

Yves Logghe/Associated Press
Another EL game played in front of empty seats

The Europa League is the prime example.

Essentially, very few teams or fans care about the competition, at least until they reach the quarter-final stage or so. Replacing boring, pointless and annoying friendlies is a great step toward making international football worthwhile again, but it can't simply be done by replacing them with a structured, experimental tiered system.

Coaches won't be judged on what would essentially be glorified friendlies anyway...unless there is plenty at stake.

And by offering qualification places at Euro 2020, there will be...for some teams, anyway.

Four qualification spots for the Championship will be up for grabs, with the other 20 qualifiers coming from the usual method of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. As per BBC Sport:

The best four teams in each division who have not already qualified for Euro 2020 will play off for the final four places in the tournament. "Twenty teams will advance from the qualifying competition to the Euro 2020 finals - which are being played in 13 cities around Europe," Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino told delegates at the authority's Congress in Kazakhstan on Thursday. "That leaves four extra slots to be filled and they will come from four teams from the Nations League who have not otherwise qualified."

That makes the tournament perhaps worthwhile for some who make a slow start to their qualification campaign, but it still seems possible—or even likely—that a strong nation in a relatively straightforward Euro 2020 qualification group would be able to use the Nations League as a stepping stone, a proving ground for younger players on the verge of senior action.

Not unlike the Europa League, perhaps.

Maybe it will be that playing the matches close together will generate excitement and entertainment around the fixtures. Maybe the four years between now and then will see more details emerge which give genuine reason to believe that teams should go all-out to try and get promoted—will performance in this affect rankings? Or will a rankings drop mean an automatic relegation anyway?—and maybe simply the idea of a new tournament will be sufficient for interest and participation to be high.

Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

It should, hopefully, also give grounds for the minnows of the game to test themselves more regularly against a similar standard of opposition, rather than getting thumped 40-2 on aggregate over the course of eight qualification games.

Friendlies against non-European teams also have to be taken into account, especially in pre-World Cup years.

All told, it's an exciting possibility and a venture which could have major success, but there is still much to get right on UEFA's part if they don't wish their latest radical overhaul of the international game to fizzle out into another meaningless fixture pile-up, which serves nothing more than to widen the club-vs.-country chasm.

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