A small step in the right direction
Forget the complexity of the format, which may well hamstring the new tournament in its infancy. Try to ignore the fair comments about tinkering and trying to reinvent the wheel. For what it’s worth, UEFA may well have stumbled across a good idea, somewhere in the muddle and mechanics of their shiny and new flagship competition.
At the very least, UEFA have attempted to tackle the increased grumbling and general inconvenience of the international friendly. In an age where club football increasingly holds sway, international exhibition games have been labelled as meaningless, forgettable and dreary. Increasingly the major players opt out with slight niggles and muscular complaints and the resulting matchups are often tepid and dire to watch.
England v Norway – most stayed at home
UEFA’s idea is to replace non-competitive fixtures with tournament football. Relegation and promotion will be on the cards, as will the chance for four nations from the very top seeds to compete for a trophy. On the surface it is not a bad idea at all. But there are a few worrying signs for European Football’s administration to worry about.
It has been met with ominous indifference and a lack of fanfare from the big nations. All fifty-five European associations are signed up, and there will be some interesting match ups as the tournament begins in September. However, perhaps the emphasis on the carrot of four extra places at the EUROS is overplayed. Perhaps UEFA should push the tournament as platform for future success and an overall improved standard of football on the continent, with the meaningless friendlies slowly phased out.
Pointless exercises of international friendlies
The Champions League as business model and football tournament is near flawless. It may seem unfair to the minnows, but the big boys are kept apart until they are unleashed on each other in the frantic knock-out stages to the delight of the viewing public. The final regularly pulls in between 160 – 250 million viewers globally as fans flock to see the show piece event.
The tournament’s appeal to the teams and players competing in it is the heightened status it offers. Clubs competing in it are seen as the elite, playing the best on a regular basis.
Playing sides of a similar or slightly better standard only serves to improve and bring the best out of teams. Liverpool rose to the occasion to thump a superior Manchester City in last season’s quarter-finals as did A.S Roma in their epic victory over Barcelona. There is no doubt that both groups of players came out better on the other side of these epic matches.
Herein lies the issue for the international scene. Players and fans alike are turned off by a fruitless exercise in international friendly matches. The qualifiers are also a problem. There are only a handful of really top class European nations at any one time; therefore, superior teams will be grouped alongside teams with absolutely no chance of winning.
Group H Qualifying 2014 World Cup
When you group the friendly matches and the qualifiers together as fixture lists, a big national team can actually go two years or so without playing anyone of a similar or better quality to them, in a competitive fixture. This can be painfully applied to England’s recent misfortunes.
False records and why UEFA Nations League is good for England and other top national teams
In eight years of qualification matches for the Wold Cup and the Euros, England have lost just once. In the same period of tournament football they have won just two knockout matches. Italy, Germany, Belgium, Uruguay, Iceland and Croatia, they are all nations that have been on a similar or better level over the past few years. England have fallen to them all in recent major tournaments.
England’s record in competitive matches would have you believe that they are a solid top twenty international team. In reality, these wins have been clocked up in friendly matches and against minnows in their qualification group. They have been painfully exposed in proper matches against better teams.
No doubt, more exposure more often to matches against good sides in a competitive setting will do them some good. With relegation to the League B at stake and the potential loss of face that would cause to England, they will likely take the tournament seriously.
Playing good sides pushes players to their limits and builds a better sense of character and maturity.
If the tournament can help England improve in their recent record against the big boys then it must surely be seen as something positive. The mentality of England’s players is fragile at best and any practise against the top sides will only help them when the really big occasions come up. Gareth Southgate would be wise to take the competition seriously on that basis.
Platform for the minnows
The tournament should also be sold to the teams in leagues C and D as a real chance to grow and develop. Yes there will be a chance for some of the smaller sides to qualify for the Euros, but the focus should surely be on the real chance that these nations will be able to win a few competitive football matches.
They should look on at the great work done by Iceland as extra motivation. A nation with the population of Coventry in the UK, has made successive international tournaments, beating England, and claiming draws with Argentina and Portugal along the way.
It may not be possible to duplicate Icelandic success, but the chances of playing a few more winnable games more often against better suited opponents should be seen as a real plus. The UEFA Nations League could offer a platform to coaches of minnow nations like Kosovo, San Marino or Lithuania. More expansive, ambitious football could be played as opposed to parking the pus and hoping to not get beat up too bad.
San Marino’s miserable record:
P 115 W 1 D 3 L 111 GF 16 GA 465
With the added chance of a reasonable shot at qualification to a major tournament, the league could also see football reach more of an audience in new countries and markets. The increased revenue will be a real plus for European football’s governing body.
With success there could be future innovations
As with all things football, the success or failure of the UEFA Nations League will be determined by the viewing figures and revenue. Sky Sports have purchased the TV rights for £200 million which should encourage its organizers somewhat.
Match attendances, TV revenue and overall viewing figures will ultimately see if this new tournament takes off or not. However it comes to be judged, it must be acknowledged that a step in the right direction has been made. International friendly matches must be consigned to the dust bin of football history. More competitive fixtures more often is a must.
UEFA though could be really brave and take the tournament a step further by mirroring one of their fellow confederations. The CONMEBOL qualifying stage for the World Cup is a real slog.
Ten nations, a lot of them well matched, and with real challenges such as Bolivia’s high altitude home ground and the fierce intensity of Argentina’s home support. The qualifying round is brutal and ruthless. Chile for example are back to back Copa America winners and yet failed to make it to Russia 2018 World Cup.
UEFA could maybe take a leaf from the South American book and split the actual qualifying groups for the Euros into a 3 of 10 and an expanded league of 15. It could end up being a super league for qualification.
Yes some big teams may fail to qualify, but the exposure to top level opponents would be maximised and managers could truly get a genuine reflection on their players. It would certainly up the ante for international breaks and well and truly remove any semblance of non-competitive action in the future. One downside could be the obvious injuries in fiercely competitive matches of UEFA Nations League which might deeply affect the club competitions in contrast to the friendlies.
Listen to the official UEFA Nations League anthem
Passionate football writer and lifelong Liverpool fan. Specializing in a mixture of blogs, opinion pieces and featured articles. A football purist at heart.