ALEXIS JAMES poses the question: Who really stands to profit from UEFA’s new Nations League?
“In every even year there are FIFA World Cup or UEFA EURO winners; now in every odd year there will be a UEFA Nations League champion. Football is about competition and now, just like in club football, there will be a national team champion at the end of every season.”
UEFA, December 2014
A mere two months after the World Cup is lifted aloft in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on 15th July 2018, bringing to a climax the 21st edition of FIFA’s showcase, UEFA will launch a brand new international tournament.
Looking to wrest the global attention like an envious toddler screaming after his sister’s school play, the Nations League represents UEFA’s latest attempt to inject some impetus and interest into the European international game.
Announced to surprisingly little fanfare in March 2014, the tournament has retained a low profile despite it being the biggest shake-up in international football for a generation.
The reasons for this lack of coverage are unclear. Its scheduled start date, in September 2018, may simply be too distant for the press to get excited about. Particularly given that ahead of it in the calendar awaits a controversial World Cup primed to dominate the headlines.
Another theory is that UEFA themselves may have been keen to restrict the scrutiny to a minimum, with its then President Michel Platini aiming to keep his ace in the deck until it came to pitching his credentials for the FIFA presidency. A knock at the door from Swiss investigators would later end those ambitions.
Yet, given that UEFA were keen to stress during the unveiling that the format was provisional and subject to change, it’s likely that they were simply giving themselves some leeway should they need to amend their lofty new plans.
This flexibility has already allowed them to welcome a new entrant following Kosovo’s acceptance into the European football family in May, meaning their original 54-team competition will now need to find room for 55.
55 teams, four divisions, 16 groups. One winner.
Despite the numerical tweak, their grand concept of splitting Europe into four divisions remains. These divisions will be known as A, B, C and D, and each division will be sub-divided into four groups of three or four teams.
Division A will feature the best teams, Division D the worst. Group winners will be promoted, with bottom teams relegated, and everyone will resume in their new group placings when the following Nations League begins in 2020.
UEFA’s piece de resistance will see the four group winners from Division A advance to an event imaginatively titled the ‘Final Four’, a mini-tournament to be played in June of every odd-numbered year. In other words, even when there are no World Cups or Euros in the diary, international football will still find a way to crown a new champion.
Already evident is the challenge UEFA faces in effectively communicating the tournament’s many intricacies. Seeking to avoid befuddling its member nations and their millions of fans before a ball has been kicked is no doubt another reason for their soft launch approach.
UEFA’s juggling act
UEFA will decide which teams play in which division by consulting their infamous coefficients. With the allocation date of 15th November 2017 coinciding with conclusion of the World Cup qualifiers, the rankings on that day will determine the starting blocks in the first ever Nations League.
To put a working example into play, the latest coefficients would see England – ranked third – beginning in Division A/Group 1, alongside Spain and Germany. Which might well be the moment when England fans wish that perennial relegation-dodger Sam Allardyce had chosen his friends a little more wisely.
Based on the same 2015 interim coefficients, Division A/Group 2 would see Portugal, Belgium and Italy fighting it out for promotion to the top flight, with Holland, France and Russia in Group 3, and so on. All the way down to Gibraltar in Division D/Group 4, scrapping it out with San Marino, Andorra and Malta.
Legitimising the overhaul
In introducing the Nations League, UEFA appeared open and candid about the current malaise in the international game outside of prestige tournaments. With a sense of apathy emanating from both players and clubs regarding the merit of exhibition games, on top of dwindling attendances, Europe’s governing body felt compelled into their bold move.
“The UEFA Nations League creates more meaningful and competitive matches for teams and a dedicated calendar and structure for national team football”, came the message. UEFA said its members wanted “more sporting meaning in international football”. Which, translated from PR speak, means “no more worthless friendlies”.
UEFA’s clear intention is therefore to scrap friendlies in favour of competitive fixtures. But seemingly worried that this alone isn’t reason enough to warrant the revamp, they haven’t stopped there.
On top of the aforementioned ‘Final Four’ summer tournament, where two semi-finals and a final will decide the first ever UEFA Nations League champions in 2019, the league will also award four qualifying slots for Euro 2020.
In aiming to intertwine their new tournament with the traditional qualifying rounds, it appears UEFA are keen to impress the importance of it on any member associations who dare not take it quite so seriously.
The final advantage to UEFA relates to the coefficients, so often a subject of mockery among fans and pundits alike. Given that they are a controversial but necessary process required for seeding nations in tournament draws, the Nations League will allow for a more logical way of ranking Europe’s sides over the long-term. Scrapping the complex and ambiguous coefficients in favour of league rankings offers a more tangible and understandable alternative to its convoluted algorithms.
Considering all the new introductions and changes, arguably UEFA’s most impressive trick – and one they’ll be no doubt keen to stress when the barrage of questions and criticism eventually arrives – is that they have scheduled all of the above without adding to the current international calendar.
The Nations League will see group teams play each other home and away and take place over six matchdays, during the existing double-header international slots in September, October and November. The ‘Final Four’ competition is scheduled for June, when two international games are traditionally arranged during any post-season not featuring a major tournament.
So, with meaningless friendlies on the scrapheap and two exciting new tournaments introduced, and without a single calendar change required, it’s no wonder UEFA feel that they’ve played a masterstroke.
The real driving force
Of course, this is football, the world’s most lucrative sport. And so, despite the spin that UEFA will put on this, money is not simply an accidental passenger on this new journey. It has its hands firmly on the wheel.
Referring back to our hypothetical example above, UEFA will be supremely confident that six competitive matches between England, Germany and Spain will pull in bumper crowds; certainly, compared to say the record Wembley low of 40,000 that turned up to watch England beat Norway in a summer friendly two years ago.
Then there are the TV audiences. Since UEFA introduced central media rights for its qualifiers in 2014, a licensed broadcaster can show a selection of high-profile games from the continent over consecutive days, rather than simply airing the one or two games involving its national side. To accommodate this, UEFA now stagger matches from Thursdays to Tuesdays during international breaks in what they describe as “a week of football”.
It all results in more football on TV, and more broadcasting income for UEFA and its members. This same centralised model will be implemented for the Nations League.
What might well concern the fans in England, however, is that the UEFA Nations League will not be categorised as a “crown jewel” sporting event, like the World Cup and European Championships. Meaning there is no legal requirement for it to be shown on terrestrial television.
Which allows the tournament to be put out to tender to the satellite broadcasters and their fat wallets. This is naturally good news for UEFA, but also Sky Sports, who are already believed to have secured the rights to the first two editions of the Nations League. ITV will make do with a highlights package.
To nobody’s surprise, UEFA reject the claim that money is the catalyst behind the changes, and insists it will benefit all member nations:
“Finances are not a driver for the new competition. However, the competition will have the same centralised media rights as have recently been introduced for all European Qualifiers so associations will have even more stability in their income.”
A two-tier system
But stability does not mean equality, and centralised media rights does not guarantee that all nations are awarded the same return from the tournament coffers.
Teams in Division A will earn more royalties than those in Division D, and it’s in this regard that UEFA’s claim about reform allowing the smaller nations to thrive begins to look less assured:
“Lower-ranking teams who have struggled against teams ranked considerably higher than them will now get the chance to take part in balanced matches. Teams do not learn and progress by repeatedly losing; now some teams will start winning.”
There is some truth to UEFA’s reasoning, and there is little doubt the top nations will appreciate not being kicked for 90 minutes by a pumped-up team of mechanics and postmen.
But what UEFA appears to be conveniently ignoring here is that while the smaller nations slug it out only amongst themselves, their own chances of a full stadium and large TV audiences are severely reduced. Just how many people will eagerly tune in to Luxembourg vs. Macedonia?
Additionally, with three-team groups comprising the top two divisions, UEFA have ensured that there remains space in the international calendar for the higher-ranked sides to fit in lucrative friendlies against teams from other confederations.
So, high-profile matches against Brazil, Argentina or the USA remain on the table for Europe’s best nations but not so for those in Divisions C and D, whose four-team groups require two additional league fixtures to be fulfilled.
Yet, while UEFA may well face accusations of creating an unfairly weighted two-tier system, a strong counter-argument focuses on the fact that for many smaller nations, arranging international friendlies is already a nigh-on impossibility.
San Marino have managed only two home friendlies in the last five years, against Malta and Albania. The Faroe Islands haven’t hosted a home friendly since 2004, so there is certainly some merit in the theory that replacing friendlies with scheduled international fixtures will take some of the administrative pain away from the game’s less-celebrated outfits.
What is unquestionable though is that the format removes one of football’s key pillars; the upset. Which is great news for Goliath, but not so good for European football’s many Davids.
A second bite of the cherry
On a similar theme, UEFA’s decision to allocate Euro 2020 qualifying slots to the Nations League will unquestionably raise some eyebrows.
In addition to the 20 teams earning a European Championship place in regular qualifying, four further teams will advance through the Nations League play-offs, contested by the 16 winners of each group. Should a group winner have already qualified, the slot will be allocated to the next highest placed side. The four group winners in each division will contest the play-offs over a semi-final and final.
Again, this is sure to favour the traditionally stronger nations, effectively granting them a second chance should they miss out through qualifying first time around. Take the Netherlands, who failed to qualify for Euro 2016 by finishing fourth in qualifying behind Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey. In 2019, they’ll know that if the same happens again, the Nations League could save them from missing the party.
It’s a pattern that begins to mirror the increasingly self-serving nature of the European club game, with third-placed sides in Champions League groups offered a shot at the Europa League as a consolation. But UEFA have yet another ready-made rebuttal to any accusations of elitism:
“For middle-ranking and small nations, the UEFA Nations League will provide an extra way to qualify for UEFA EURO final tournaments. Lower-tier nations − the bottom 16 in rankings − are now guaranteed one of the 24 qualifying slots for UEFA EURO.”
It’s undeniably a smart move. UEFA have guaranteed that its best nations play each other more often by placating its smaller nations with a guarantee of regular competitive fixtures, fewer drubbings, and an extra chance at qualifying for the big time. By allocating one Euro slot per Division, even being one of the 16 worst sides in Europe won’t prevent a team from potential qualification.
Based on the current coefficients, Finland, Cyprus or Azerbaijan would be the favourites to seal a Euro 2020 place through Division D.
Club vs. Country
So, while it’s beginning to make sense why the international associations are happy to go along with the changes, it remains to be seen quite how the continent’s club sides will take it.
Could the days of resting key players at international level be over now that competition has usurped exhibition? Will managers be more reluctant to blood untried youngsters now that promotion, prize money and Euro qualification are up for grabs?
It would take a brave England manager to field an inexperienced side against Germany in a game that could result in relegation or Euro 2020 qualification. And exactly how are Real Madrid going to take the news that Wales are refusing to substitute Gareth Bale after 60 minutes because they’re desperate to beat Sweden for promotion to Division A?
The number of international games might not be increasing, but the minutes played by European football’s finest, and most expensive, surely will.
UEFA maintain that the new competition will somehow reduce demands on players and clubs, envisaging less travel and believing that playing more consistently at their own level will benefit those taking part. But as any club manager will surely attest, if you raise the stakes at top-level football, you raise the chances of injury too.
One thing is for certain: if you think you’ve heard enough club vs. country phone-in debates to last you a lifetime, you might want to keep the radio switched off by the time the Nations League kicks off in two years’ time.
To the modern supporter of a Premier League side, there are few things more frustrating than a two-week international break just as the season is getting into top gear, particularly if the alternative served up is soul-sapping friendly filler. So, for Europe’s football fans, UEFA’s brainwave is surely to be welcomed, right?
The new league offers more competition, more talking points, more reasons to give a damn. Even if it manages to whip up only an iota of the fervour that greets each major international tournament, it will be a vast improvement on the current mid-season international offering.
On top of that, for those who twiddle thumbs, bite nails and watch Sky Sports News on a loop during long and desolate tournament-less summers, the ‘Final Four’ presents an attractive proposition to fill the post-season void.
There remains a chance, no matter how small, that UEFA’s latest fully-licensed, turbo-branded, logo-spewing competition proves to be a step too far. That the answer to the question “is it possible to have too much football?” finally returns a resounding yes.
Could the reason we devour the World Cup with such passion be due to the fact that we are graced with its presence only every four years? Do we enthrall in high-octane clashes between international powerhouses because they are rare delights to be enjoyed only when the suspense of a draw pits them together?
In coming up with this multi-layered re-working of European international football, UEFA have carefully considered the potential concerns of their key stakeholders at every turn. But having seemingly satisfied the football associations, the national teams and the players, they seem to have made one potentially glaring oversight – the fans.
In taking their interest for granted, UEFA risk reaching a previously unthinkable saturation point. One that recent drops in attendance and even live television viewing figures have been hinting towards.
Another line of thought would instead suggest reducing the amount of mid-season international games would prove a more effective counter to the game’s increasing fan apathy and decreasing attendances. Of course, that’s not an idea that’s ever going to be floated in UEFA’s pristine offices on the banks of Lake Geneva.
For among these serene surroundings it was decided that the European Championships, which began in 1960 with only four competing teams, would by 2016 welcome almost half of all teams in Europe.
Remember also that this is the same organisation that formed the Champions League, and saw no issue with expanding it to the extent now where three quarters of entrants aren’t actually league champions. At UEFA HQ, the solution to any problem has always been the same: more football.
Now, the Nations League is next off its production line. For UEFA, September 2018 can’t come quick enough.
ALEXIS JAMES – @AlexisJamesUK