/ 7 September 2018

Uefa Nations League seeks relevance

Kick-off: To lift the boredom of meaningless national friendlies during the international football break
Kick-off: To lift the boredom of meaningless national friendlies during the international football break, Turkey (above) will play Russia and Sweden in Uefa Nations League matches this week

It’s hard to put into words the disdain the average football fan has for the international break. For two weeks, our clubs are snatched away from us as their players link up with their respective national sides to play meaningless friendlies. We try in vain to convince ourselves that the games are worthy of our attention — through all of 90 minutes we lie to ourselves that this is the real thing.

It turns out that Uefa shares that sense of emptiness in our stomachs. “The rejuvenation of national team football — and the Uefa Nations League — stems from the desire of Uefa and its 55 member associations to improve the quality and standing of national team football,” the European governing body’s rationale goes. “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.”

And so we have the Uefa Nations League, a tournament that has most of us furiously referring to “how will it work?” articles.

Here’s the cheat sheet: Europe’s teams will be divided into four leagues, A to D. Rankings, as of October 2017, will determine who begins in which, with the elite filling the upper echelon.

In turn, each league is divided into four groups. Finishing top of the group earns passage to the next round; finishing last guarantees relegation to a lower division when the competition rolls around two years later.

The four that progress will take part in standard play-offs — semis and a final — next year in June, with the winner declared the inaugural champion.

Crucially, each league will have a Euro 2020 spot available. The highest ranked teams from each group that didn’t qualify for the showpiece will then meet in a separate set of knockout rounds to determine who else travels to Euro 2020.

There is no denying — and Uefa wouldn’t even try to — that this is an attempt to bring relevance back to the international game. It’s not only fans who detest the international break — everyone does. Club managers whine about insignificant games hosted at far-off locations around the globe, which inevitably deliver some players home injured or fatigued.

Their international counterparts aren’t pleased either; bar the sparse qualifiers, they’re barely able to test out their sides in real competition until they show up at the door of the next World Cup or Euros. We can’t even rely on the money makers in all of this to be happy: attendances and TV revenues have plummeted in recent years.

It’ll be fascinating to see how tightly teams and players embrace this new round robin. It’s not as if the mere presence of a trophy guarantees prestige — we’re looking at you, English League Cup (or whatever silly sponsored name there is these days). The idea of all stakeholders bemoaning the compulsory monotony of the Uefa Nations League four years from now is not inconceivable. None of us want that to come to pass.

This could be the long-awaited tonic to the international break sickness; finally, we may have something to cheer for when club football
takes its regular two-week hiatus.

The first game on Thursday night saw World Cup champions France take on World Cup flops Germany. On paper that’s huge: two European heavyweights going at it in a competitive game at the beginning of September is unheard of. An equally enticing game on Saturday will see England hosting Spain at Wembley Stadium. Next week we’ll watch Portugal and Italy do battle.

These are fixtures that get the blood boiling in anticipation. They’re matches we only get to see at the big quadrennial showpieces. No one can force players, coaches or fans to fall in love with this new concept but, for the love of football, let’s all agree to at least try to take it seriously.