By Andrew Warshaw
September 22 – For years, football’s European stakeholders – leagues, clubs and especially fans – have complained about meaningless friendlies and pushed for an alternative that makes games more competitive.
UEFA hope they have come up with a solution in the form of the Nations League whose logo was unveiled this week and the draw for which takes place next January.
The competition, which will begin in September 2018, runs alongside qualifying for the European Championship and while concerns are bound to be raised about adding an already overcrowded calendar, UEFA believe its new platform will provide meaningful incentive for stronger and weaker nations alike.
Qualifying for Euro 2020 begins in March 2019 with countries split into 10 groups of five or six. The qualifiers provide 20 of the 24 teams for the one-off pan-European finals taking place in 13 cities. Crucially, the four remaining places will be up for grabs via the inaugural Nations League, which will see UEFA’s 55 countries split into four leagues depending on their ranking, each league divided into four groups, and an ultimate champion.
UEFA have been planning the competition since 2011 and hope, despite what appears to be a highly convoluted format on paper, that it will help promote proper competition. Effectively countries will be given a second chance to reach the Holy Grail.
The new competition will take place across six matchdays with double-headers during international breaks in September, October and November. Each league will have a path of its own with home and away semi-finals and a final. The so-called Final Four, the climax to the competition, will determine who reaches Euro 2020.
The whole idea is that teams face opposition of a similar level resulting in fewer one-sided fixtures, and that weaker countries are not simply there to make up the numbers.
“Once the World Cup has been played next year, we enter a new cycle when we will start rolling out the Nations League,” UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti told a briefing this week after regulations were approved. “We hope it will provide more competitive games.”
Marchetti played down the possibility of the bigger countries fielding weaker sides in the competition. “I don’t understand why they would do this,” he said. “There are so many incentives. All our associations agree that it’s better to play matches in a competitive framework with better balanced games.”
He acknowledges the complex format may take some getting used but that it will ultimately catch on. “My expectation is that the Nations League will be well received by the fans once they get used to it. We are simply applying to national teams a (promotion and relegation) system that is played by clubs in every country.”
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