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So What is the UEFA Nations League Anyway?

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You may have heard about the Nations League, but what is it and how does it work?

Italy v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

When I first read about the new UEFA Nations League it reminded me a bit of another attempt and redesigning a global paradigm, the ill-fated precursor to the United Nations, the League of Nations, which, if nothing else, was a vastly superior name. Formed in the wake of the Great War, the League of Nations failure to prevent further fullscale global warfare was ultimately its demise; that and the fact the United States, one of the architects of the League, failed to actually, you know, join the thing.

Where the League of Nations sought to avoid the horrors of global warfare, the UEFA Nations League will seek to combat the horrors of meaningless international friendlies. Admittedly, when I first heard about this new concept, it seemed a bit contrived; after all, there are only so many ways you can jazz up the international breaks. However, now that I’ve had a few months to digest it, I’m fully on board with the Nations League.

So, what exactly is the UEFA Nations League?

Per UEFA, the shift to the Nations League was driven by:

The desire of UEFA and its 55 member associations to improve the quality and standing of national team football. UEFA and its associations wanted more sporting meaning in national team football, with associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams.

Source: UEFA

So that’s the rationale, but how will this thing work?

Well, a bit like, as the name suggests, an actual league. The 55 member nations have been split into four different leagues based on coefficient rankings as of October 2017. The four leagues are further subdivided into four groups as follows:

League A

  • A1: Germany, France, Netherlands
  • A2: Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland
  • A3: Portugal, Italy, Poland
  • A4: Spain, England, Croatia

This is obviously the top tier of the Nations League, and as such the group winners will fight for the Nations League title, as well as the third place game. Conversely, the four bottom teams will be relegated to League B for the 2020 competition, while the top four teams that do not qualify directly for Euro 2020 will enter a playoff in March 2020 for the final Euro 2020 spot; sort of a high-stakes NCAA tournament style dash for the final spot.

League B

  • B1: Slovakia, Ukraine, Czech Republic
  • B2: Russia, Sweden, Turkey
  • B3: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland
  • B4: Wales, Republic of Ireland, Denmark

These folks will rise and fall between League A and B just like a normal domestic league, with the top four moving up and the bottom four dropping to League C. Additionally, the top four teams that DO NOT make Euro 2020 directly will enter a playoff in March of 2020 with one berth into the Euros at stake.

League C

  • C1: Scotland, Albania, Israel
  • C2: Hungary, Greece, Finland, Estonia
  • C3: Slovenia, Norway, Bulgaria, Cyprus
  • C4: Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Lithuania

The promotion, relegation and Euro 2020 playoff game works in the same manner as League C. There is one interesting twist, though. Due to the extreme latitudes in which some of these nations play, no group can have more than two of Norway, Finland, Estonia or Lithuania. Again, like the other Leagues, the top four teams that don’t qualify for the Euros will play in that winner take all tourny in March 2020.

League D

  • D1: Georgia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Andorra
  • D2: Belarus, Luxembourg, Moldova, San Marino
  • D3: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta, Kosovo
  • D4: FYR Macedonia, Armenia, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar

The top four teams in this bottom feeder league will gain promotion to League C, while the bottom four, I guess, sort of just remain here?? They weren’t exactly clear on that, but if it consists of all UEFA member nations, it would stand to reason. Just like every other group, the four teams that don’t qualify for EURO 2020 directly will enter the March 2020 playoff.

The group fixtures for the League of Nations will be played over six match days between September and November of 2018, with the finals set for June of 2019.

Now, you probably noticed a lot of implications for Euro 2020 qualifications, and for the finer points on that we’ll turn to UEFA themselves:

The changes to UEFA EURO qualifying will make it more streamlined. The equation is now simple: ten groups with the top two teams in each group qualifying automatically, and the other four places being awarded to European Qualifiers play-off winners, in which the 16 group winners of the UEFA Nations League will be in contention.

I like how they used the word streamlined, because this is making my head spin, but essentially the Nations League is linked to European Qualifying in that it allows for another path of qualification. If you’re a nation that hasn’t qualified directly through the normal route, performing well in the Nations League could be a fail safe.

Reading back through this the word contrived continues to plague me, but if nothing else the Nations League adds a bit of juice to what was otherwise the worst part of the international calendar; the droll cycle of friendlies.

The Nations League isn’t perfect, and I suspect its success will depend largely on the seriousness with which the national team directors, managers and players treat this new competition. When forging a new league or competition, validity and perception are often the two demons organizers must exorcise. A failure to do so often dooms the project before it began, just ask the XFL.

So, what do we think: will the Nations League join the Euros, the World Cup and the Champions League among the most honored competitions in the sport, or is this merely a Europa League for national teams?