Ta’s Timeout: A solution to meaningless international friendlies? The UEFA Nations League

Graphic by Emma Li

This past summer, the largest sporting event in the world brought together millions of people, as the 2018 FIFA World Cup showed us all how national pride impacts football’s biggest stage.

However, those who watch football regularly know that international football is not always played at the highest level, when the stakes aren’t as high.

The international break is a period in which regularly scheduled club football is halted in order for players to represent their national teams. While some international breaks consist of qualifying matches for major tournaments like the World Cup, most consist of meaningless friendlies.

International friendlies are typically far less exciting than competitive club matches. On top of that, players jeopardize their fitness ahead of an important run of club games. Sometimes the break can even ruin a club’s momentum during a season’s pivotal period.

To combat the dull nature of meaningless international friendlies, the Union of European Football Associations implemented the UEFA Nations League, a biennial football competition involving the 55 men’s national teams of UEFA.

While the UEFA Nations League does not fix the problem of injuries or the teams’ momentum being ruined, it does provide fans with competitive football in an exciting tournament format as opposed to random, pointless matches.

With a new competition comes a new format, so let’s try to understand how this all works.

The 55 national teams are split into four leagues labeled A, B, C, and D based on their UEFA coefficient, which is essentially a measure of how strong a team is. The strongest nations are placed in League A, while the weakest are placed in League D.

Each league consists of four groups of three or four teams. Group winners in Leagues B, C, and D are promoted to the league above. Nations who finish last in their group in Leagues A and B are relegated to the league below.

Now, this is where it gets complicated, so bear with me. Because there is an uneven amount of UEFA members, there is one group in League C that consists of three teams and three groups that consist of four teams.

In the groups with four teams, the nations who finish last are obviously relegated to League D. However, the worst third-placed team throughout the four groups in League C is also relegated to League D. I could go on and on about the specifics of determining the worst third-placed team, but in short, it is based on their competitive record in the group matches.

The four group winners from League A qualify for the UEFA Nations League finals, which consist of two semi-finals matches, a third-place match, and a final to determine the UEFA Nations League Champion.

Winning the UEFA Nations League tournament is a great achievement in its own right, but there are other reasons why a nation would want to bring their best players and do well. The new UEFA Nations League will serve as a backdoor route of qualification for the largest European footballing event: the European Championships.

In 2020, the European Championships will involve 24 teams for the second time. Qualification will consist of 10 groups. Twenty out of the 24 teams will qualify for the final tournament through the group stages of qualification, by finishing in either first or second place in their respective groups.

The remaining four teams will be decided in a playoff format involving the 16 group winners of the 2018-2019 UEFA Nations League.

If the group winner has already qualified, which is likely to be the case in League A, then the next best team in their respective league or if needed be, the league below, will be given the opportunity. Consequently, in the case that League A does not have enough unqualified teams for a playoff tournament, teams from League B who have not qualified will be able to take the remaining slot(s).

It is important to note that each league has a playoff path of its own, meaning that one nation in Leagues A, B, C, and D, respectively, will be able to qualify for the 2020 Euros. This is especially great news for the minnows of UEFA in League D. The UEFA Nations League guarantees that there will be at least one debutant in the next European Championships.

Clearly, the UEFA Nations League is bringing a new dynamic to international football. It’s raising the stakes of each and every game, while providing football fanatics with the entertainment we enjoy from club football. What more could we possibly ask for?

Danny Ta PO ’22 is a prospective math major from Ontario, CA. In his free time, he enjoys being frustrated by the inconsistency of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United.

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