The tragedy of the UEFA Nations League is that it’s actually a really good idea. But like in-person local council meetings and commuting to work, the pandemic has altered our view on it.
As the football calendar expands beyond unsustainable levels to the point of being ludicrous, it is a fact of life that international football is bemoaned and its place is once again questioned. The reality is of course that international football is not the disruptor-in-chief. It is its older and more boisterous cousin, club football, who gets first dibs on any empty space on the calendar in need of filling. And it is club football who makes the demands on players unreasonable. Such days are so rare now anyway.
The Nations League was an excellent invention by a governing body too often guilty of lining its own pockets rather than acting in the interests of the world’s most popular sport. Instead of international friendlies, why not create a relegation and promotion system which enhances competitiveness? Why not create another trophy which, once it inevitably stands the test of time, will command respect and whose winners will be lauded? There’s no reason why not to create this. So UEFA did.
The first edition took place between the 2018 World Cup and the summer of 2019, and was a success. All European national teams were divided into four leagues based on their UEFA coefficients. Those four leagues were then split further into groups of three or four. Teams played their group opponents home and away in the autumn, and by November 2018 the group winners had sealed promotion to the league above and those relegated would move down a league. Those who topped League A groups went through to the Nations League Finals.
So in June 2019, the Netherlands, England and Switzerland joined hosts Portugal in the semi-finals, third-place playoff and final. England collapsed to the Dutch, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick, Jordan Pickford scored a penalty and then saved one, Portugal were crowned champions, and everyone was happy enough to admit this had all felt like it mattered. Well, almost everyone. Belgium huffed downwards at the competition somewhat — but they sort of had to. They’d thrown away a finals place by squandering a two-goal lead to lose 5-2 in their final group game against Switzerland.
But as 2019 held the door ajar for 2020, the world was hit by the first global pandemic in a century. Football, like everything else that usually matters a great deal, suddenly didn’t matter one iota. By autumn 2020, so many months supposed to have included the next Nations League campaign had instead brought only toilet roll shortages and the Rule of Six outdoors, with no mixing. Finally the Nations League returned in the autumn — squeezed into a space that was no longer there.
The September 2020 international break came before the players had even returned to their clubs from pre-season. Gareth Southgate told me at the time that that he felt “We shouldn’t have been playing in September”, adding since that it was “ridiculous”. They shouldn’t. And it was.
It was tough all round. Football had returned from the pandemic just early enough that it was feasible, on paper, to shift but keep the 2020/21 Nations League. But just enough time had been lost that the Nations League was instantly chosen as something the football community felt should be scrapped from the post-Covid calendar. It became one of Football Twitter’s most-hated competitions, along with the EFL Cup and — for Liverpool fans quivering at the thought of losing Sadio Mané and Mo Salah mid-season — the African Cup of Nations.
So the Nations League became a soft victim of Covid in many ways. It’s back this summer, but a new obstacle means there is again barely enough space on the calendar for it. That obstacle is of course the small matter of a barmy and surreal first-ever winter World Cup. “Thanks FIFA,” cries UEFA, gritting its teeth.
Kevin De Bruyne might not have been looking forward to four games this month, at the end of a long and taxing season for Manchester City. But his City team-mates at England would never be caught saying that. England like the Nations League. And, right at the other end of the league system, so do plucky San Marino.
The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is the oldest republic in the world. It also happens to have by far the worst national football team in Europe, and as things stand, the lowest-ranked national side in the world. San Marino’s last competitive match came against England in November. They lost 10–0 and, in all honesty, if the men operating VAR hadn’t fallen asleep on the job, it should and would have been 12–0.
But San Marino savour Nations League campaigns and who can blame them? Between fruitless qualifying campaigns in which they get battered from pillar to post, they now have a chance to play minnows of a similar level — and chance to score and, heck, maybe even win. Since 2014, they’ve avoided defeat just twice — both times in the Nations League. San Marino 0–0 Gibraltar. What’s not to love?
Over in North and Central America, the Nations League model also exists. The United States prevailed in the inaugural edition in 2020, rising to the top of 34 national teams to beat arch-rivals Mexico in the 114th minute of a thrilling final. It’s also served to help some of the world’s smallest nations – such as the former worst football nation in the world™, Montserrat – not only compete, but develop towards a now-achievable goal of reaching the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
It was a similar route in UEFA’s competition that saw North Macedonia qualify for Euro 2020. Try telling them the Nations League doesn’t matter.
So while this summer’s four fixtures now – and inevitably the two in September – draw ire, the biggest compliment you can pay the idea is that it’s here to stay, reserving its seat on the football express, filling up as we speak.
Good work, UEFA. It feels weird writing that.