UEFA Nations League: Breaking Down the Newest International Tournament
When UEFA, European football's governing body, announced on Thursday the unanimous approval for the creation of a new major international tournament starting in 2018, the few details provided gave plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
For example, the bulk of the tournament seemed to be dispersed through the busy European club schedule, calling into question the practicality of even more competitive matches for players at clubs in the highest tiers. What's more, the vague methodology seemed to point toward a new type of format that would promote lesser nations reaching later rounds.
However, UEFA's latest statement on the Nations League, as they call it, has already begun to iron out some of the finer points and set the stage for a new system that should have fans of the international game salivating.
So what are the big differences between this method and the current qualification process? Where will it succeed and where might it falter?
Let's break down this new system.
The differences between the traditional major tournament and this new scheme starts right from the outset of the competition.
Whereas European qualifying in major tournaments has recently started off with a qualification round where a goal is in mind, the Nations League will employ a structure closer to a league in the hope of making each match important.
All 54 UEFA member nations (a number that increased by one recently due to the inclusion of Gibraltar) will be ranked by their coefficients and separated into quarters by these coefficients. Each quarter will then be separated further into groups of three or four, where each group will consist of nations whose rankings are similar.
After playing each other home and away, the group is clearly decided, with the losers suffering relegation to the next league down and the winners either gaining promotion or entering a four-team tournament to be staged the summer after.
While it's unclear how the four teams to enter the special tournament will be allotted (will they be the winners of the four highest groups or the winners of each quadrant?), what is made clear is that there will be playoffs among the group winners in each quadrant, with each of the four winners gaining automatic qualification to the next European Championships.
One obvious pro of this new system is its potential to build a chemistry amongst teams.
In the past, international friendlies amid the European club calendar served as a chance for a national manager to test some of his younger players while veterans found any excuse to get a break during the non-competitive match.
Instead, this will allow the teams to play together more regularly than once every two years and for important bonds.
Another benefit is the removal of moot fixtures.
In European qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the general system came under great scrutiny because of matches like Germany vs. Kazakhstan and England vs. San Marino, where the result was well known before a ball was kicked.
Now, each match will (or should) pit sides of a similar level, providing more excitement and placing more importance on each game.
Finally, this new system should provide a big opportunity for lesser national associations to build up their teams.
Across all confederations, the same question is asked: How do we foster competition and build up our lower sides?
The old system of qualification forced lower ranked nations to repeatedly bang their heads against the wall in taking on the top tier of competition, which would see them inevitably fail and start from square one again.
In this new system, these low sides will be competing with each other, giving them ample opportunity to pick up wins and confidence. What's more, two of the teams in the bottom half of the confederation will earn bids to the European Championships, a competition that they wouldn't have been able to dream of entering in the old format.
All cons of the Nations League point to the crowded nature of the European calendar and how difficult it will be to fit competitive matches into the middle of it.
If it is not done correctly, the potential for rampant injuries is an obvious hazard.
Even more, top club managers could look at the competition as an unnecessary risk and try to hold their players back from (or persuade them not to) travel to matches over the international breaks.
However, it is a bit unfair to be calling these drawbacks of this format at this early stage.
With over four years left to figure the schedule out, UEFA could be able to come up with a handy solution to this problem. These issues should thus be looked at as mere concerns about the potential system and how it seems like it could play out.
With the World Cup in Brazil beginning in just over two months, there is clearly a lot to be excited about in international football.
However, UEFA's announcement of the new Nations League should be capturing the attention and the imagination of all fans of the game.
The way it is outlined, the system seems to be a huge improvement on the current one, fostering the growth of lesser teams while nurturing the chemistry of those that are already established. If the organization follows as well as the plan is laid out, the other confederations should be looking to learn from this format.
If UEFA can work out the scheduling of this tournament, there is no reason why this couldn't become an annual event that would give the organization a revenue boost (not that they particularly need it).
If everything goes well, 2018 could be a huge turning point in the world of international football.