On Tuesday evening, the initial phase of the inaugural UEFA Nations League was finalized. A competition whose announcement was greeted with trepidation by those in charge at club level, scepticism by the media and above all confusion by fans has now, after a month of compelling football, largely nullified these concerns.
The aim of the competitions was simple, to revamp an international fixture schedule which had become tedious beyond belief. The friendlies which punctuated club football have become relentlessly drab, soul-sapping affairs, enough to make even the most ardent of football fans dread the international break. In this respect, the Nations League has been an unreserved success. Genuinely absorbing fixtures including England’s 3-2 victory over Spain, Switzerland’s remarkable 5-2 comeback against Belgium and the 2-2 draw between Germany and the Netherlands stand as testament to a format which created a sharper and more competitive atmosphere in which to play football.
I found myself saying ‘let’s stick a game on’ with enthusiasm which would have been impossible to muster for a friendly. Crucially for UEFA I believe, I will not be alone in this. Enhanced viewing figures will ensure the competition will prove a lucrative cash cow, especially during the latter stages in which England will feature this summer.
The speculation amongst commentators is that UEFA are looking to replace, not just friendlies, but also the traditional method of qualifying for the European Championships with this format. If this is indeed the direction the governing body wishes to take, detractors might well say that the more eminent footballing nations are being prioritised. This is not without reason. For the first few years it is likely the continents ‘elite’ footballing nations would qualify at a canter owing to the seeding system and the inability of smaller teams, in the first few years at least, to climb up through the divisions.
These issues are a legitimate concern. Although the current qualification format often produces football which is almost as yawn-inducing as the friendlies, it does preserve one of those quirks which makes international football and indeed the sport at large so attractive: everyone starting on a level playing field. San Marino, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands get to play Spain, Germany and France, in theory, as equals.
There is something undeniably charming about these mismatches and it would be a great shame to be rid of them. However, in terms of the footballing development of these smaller countries, the Nations League format would surely be more conducive to progress. Instead of playing negative football, parking the bus and trying to concede as few goals as possible, these sides would have the opportunity to play more positively against evenly matched teams, hopefully raising the likelihood of one of them climbing through the divisions and qualifying for a major tournament in later years.
Over the past month, many smaller sides got to experience moments of glory on the international stage, winning multiple competitive games for the first time in their histories - Gibraltar doubled the amount of victories in their entire history while competing in the nations league and Kosovo managed to attain the illustrious status of finishing their campaign undefeated. These achievements will help, not just in purely footballing terms, but also psychologically and should not be underestimated.
At the opposite end of the league system, the competition format also proved successful. Three team groups, an idea UEFA has been toying with for a number of years, provided fascinating final days with endless permutations. England’s dramatic victory over Croatia felt like a mini cup final. The home side’s players were clearly elated at the full-time whistle while the Croatians dropped to their knees in relative despair. While there is concern from club sides regarding the physical impact a more competitive international break has had on their players, it is not as if the international game necessarily must take a back seat to club football. Managers will not like to hear it but they do not have absolute authority over how their players, who should be just as committed to their international side as they are to their domestic career, should be used. This is merely a state of affairs which has arisen from years of stale international football creating a culture in which the club games is prioritised.
All in all then it has been a surprisingly positive venture for UEFA who have been embroiled in seemingly endless scandals and failures in recent years. Amid the revelation of clandestine talks regarding the creation of a European Super League and of course the various Der Spiegel allegations, the success of the Nations League will be a welcome reprieve for the governing body. And while the competition is by no means perfect, it has proven to be the much-needed kick up the backside that European international football so desperately needed.