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

Karl MatchettFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb 22, 2014 file photo UEFA President Michel Platini  speaks during a press conference, one day prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying draw at the Acropolis Convention Centre in Nice, southeastern France. Seeking to bolster national team football amid the rampant success of club competitions, UEFA’s 54 member countries voted Thursday to create the Nations League. UEFA boosted the new event by guaranteeing it would feed into qualifying for the 2020 European Championship. It could later be incorporated into European qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. “This is a very important decision for the future of football at the level of national teams,” UEFA President Michel Platini said Thursday after the unanimous vote at European football’s annual congress.. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)
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.

I am FRYING MY HEAD trying to decipher this Nations League

— Ed Malyon (@eaamalyon) March 27, 2014

Overcome with excitement at the UEFA League of Nations competition. Just wish I understood it!

— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) March 27, 2014

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.

Prior to UEFA EURO 2020,each group will be divided into 4 pools of 3 or 4 teams so each team will play 4 to 6 matches between Sep & Nov 2018

— FootballFacts101 (@FootballFact101) March 27, 2014

 

Avoiding a Europa League scenario

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

In a minority, but in principle I like this "Nations League" concept. Just not convinced that organising competitions is Uefa's forte

— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) March 27, 2014

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.

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

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.

UEFA confirm League of Nations tournament that will decide 4 qualifying spots for Euro 2020 http://t.co/lYjiW5ZCVn pic.twitter.com/rcKRYSJnMj

— Setanta Sports (@SetantaSports) March 27, 2014

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.