Many of the club team competitions played throughout the year garner more attention than today’s international friendlies. As a matter of fact, there is heated debate regarding how players should balance their time between both sets of matches. For some club managers, international friendlies seem like an unnecessary and dangerous distraction, putting their players at risk of injury. On the other hand, international managers argue that their national teams need more time to play together to prepare for major tournaments. The proposed UEFA Nations League puts more purpose to European friendlies played between the World Cup and Euro tournaments.
The league is a bit complex and explaining it through text may make readers more confused about its format. Hence, the following two videos from UEFA effectively explain the structure of the league and how teams can qualify for Euro 2020 through its play-offs.
An explanation of the logistics of the UEFA Nations League
How the UEFA Nations League will be used to determine the last four countries qualifying for Euro 2020 (UEFA.tv, 2017a).
It’s questionable whether or not a league format for international friendlies will be adopted by other continents. Indeed, UEFA and FIFA have discussed the possibility of continental leagues with promotion and relegation that would lead to an intercontinental tournament (Chowdhury, 2017). As a result, more weight would be placed on international friendlies, introducing a set of benefits and consequences.
We can agree that international matches, especially those hosted during the club season, put an additional strain on players. What is more annoying is how little revenue a handful of friendlies obtain in comparison to the typical league matches played in Europe. So yes, friendlies will have more of a purpose in Europe moving forward and could be more competitive as well. UEFA divided their 4 leagues based on rankings, and nations will be competing against others of the same caliber.
What is concerning to me is the promotion and relegation aspect of the leagues. Indeed, it does make the friendlies more competitive; however, it could put teams in the bottom league at a disadvantage. Note how the last four spots in the Euro are reserved for a nation from each league (but with most nations in League A usually qualifying for the Euro, a team from League B may take the spot “reserved” for a nation from League A). The system was developed to give lower-tier nations a chance to make it to the tournament. However, if a particular nation excels within one of the bottom leagues and is promoted, securing a spot for Euro would be more difficult because they would be grouped with more competitive teams in the qualification round after the League. Nevertheless, the implementation of the league could encourage smaller nations to prioritize the development of their national teams as opposed to being “export industries,” according to Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan novelist passionate about soccer.
Moreover, the increase in competitiveness of international breaks puts players at larger risk of injury. As a result, club managers will become more frustrated with the system and create larger pushback against the scheduling of international matches. However, international coaches do not necessarily have to use their first-team for all their matches, especially for nations within the top tier (let’s not forget how Germany won the 2017 Confederations Cup with a youthful team). The Nations League could create a continuous competitive platform for international coaches to experiment with their teams as top players from more competitive domestic leagues stay with their respective clubs during international breaks.
All things considered, there are notable pros and cons to the UEFA Nations League. Whether or not it is the model for future international friendlies is still questionable. However, we should have more clearance on the issue once the league begins on September 2018.