Nations League supplants apathy of international friendlies

If you have read any of my previous articles, you may have noticed that a particular formula. When I am preparing to write an article regarding any of the various aspects of soccer, but am running out of original thoughts, I inevitably turn to my favorite punching bags: FIFA and its underling confederations (UEFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF and OFC).

I dislike them for their blatant, arrogant corruption and seemingly boundless incompetence. Their only redeeming factor, for me at least, is that they offer an endless supply of writing material. This is another one of those articles. But, in a historical first, I will not be doing my best to highlight my misgivings with UEFA, European soccer’s governing body. Instead I will actually be—cue the drumroll—praising their introduction of the new Nations League. As much as it pains me and my cold heart to exalt UEFA, the Nations League has proven an unprecedented innovation for international friendlies. Before this year, the various international breaks in the fall soccer season provided fans with uninspired matches between behemoths like Germany and minnows like Malta.

These one-sided beatings failed to provide even the slightest excitement for fans and viewers, and, on top of the mismatch, in the particular case of Germany and Malta, Germany’s best players didn’t even suit up. Such matches were chances for managers of top countries to test out inexperienced players. Yet even when the strongest nations fielded “weaker” teams, these friendlies remained snoozefests. Only on the rare occasions of matches between prominent countries, like Spain and France for instance, could the quality of the game reach tolerability.

For the teams, there was no reason to take international friendlies seriously: winning brought no benefits and losing no consequences. (Friendlies could marginally change a country’s FIFA ranking, but even then, those rankings are meaningless.)

Enter the UEFA Nations League. The idea of the Nations League was to place every UEFA member country into a group with two other countries in either League A, B or C, with four groups per league. League A would have the 12 “best” European teams—France, England, Spain, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, etc.—divided into three team groups.

Each League A team would play the other members of their group twice, and the team that finished on top of each group would advance to a Nations League semifinal against another League A group winner. More important, the teams that finished in the bottom of their respective groups would be relegated down to League B, their spots to be taken by the winners of the four League B groups.

As of the time of writing, the Netherlands have finished on top of their group, above France and Germany, and will be advancing to the semifinals next summer with England, Portugal and Switzerland. Germany will be relegated down into League B, replaced by one of Ukraine, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Denmark.

Significantly, however, the results of the Nations League will have implications for seeding in the UEFA European Championships—a tournament held every four years, similar in structure to the World Cup, but composed of UEFA members.

As you can see, UEFA completely revamped the system of international friendlies. The results of these matches now have massive implications for every country, no matter its historical pedigree or their performances in previous international tournaments. Germany, for example, the winners of the 2014 World Cup, can no longer afford to use international friendlies as a proving ground for young talent, lest its current performances relegate the team to a group of death in the next European Championship.

For viewers, the Nations League has brought parity of talent to friendlies. The German federation, barring disaster, will no longer play Malta. Instead, it can pick fights with opponents its own size, like France, the 2018 World Cup Champions. The actual play in these matches will be much less one-sided and, combined with actual incentives, provide a more passionate experience for fans and players alike.

For UEFA, the Nations League has breathed fresh life into the dull and stagnant system of international friendlies. UEFA has given the players something worth battling for, the fans something worth watching and me something worth praising.

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