It’s been an acknowledged problem in Europe for some time that international friendlies are a problem. The problem being that they’ve become a waste of time. They are meant to be an opportunity to try experiment with players and tactics. A chance to expose players to a variety of teams, tactics, formations and conditions, giving experience which can then be used in a competitive game.
But, that doesn’t happen. All too often there’s a half-assed feel to those games as players and coaches don’t treat them anywhere near as seriously as they would a competitive fixture. Coaches make so many substitutions that lineups can’t gel and fans only care about the outcome in terms of hoping anyone who plays for their club team come through the games unscathed.
Friendlies can also be somewhat of a closed shop. Usually, for monetary reasons, most of the better teams tend to play each other rather than some of the weaker nations, which in turn means that the gap between the best and worst in UEFA is wider than it should be.
Also, because of the way the FIFA rankings are calculated, some teams have worked out they can be better off not playing friendlies at all. Friendly games count for less towards a team’s ranking coefficient, and it can be the case that even winning a friendly can leave a team worse off than not playing in the first place.
So, some teams have decided to limit the number of friendless and have reaped the rewards. Wales didn’t play one for 17 months from June 2014 and ended up in the World’s top 10 a year later. Romania and Switzerland have also used this loophole to their advantage.
UEFA are aware of this, and in response have created a new competition, the UEFA Nations League, which was drawn on Wednesday.
The format is that all the teams have been placed into 4 leagues, dependent on ranking. 12 teams make up League A, 12 make up League B, 15 are in League C and the remaining 16 are in League D. Each league is split into 4 groups. The league games will be played in September, October and November.
The group winners from Leagues B, C and D get promoted (there’ll be another Nations League in the 2020-21 season), but also playoff in June 2019 to see who wins each respective league. The bottom placed team in each group of Leagues A, B and C get relegated. As there is an odd number of teams in League C, the third--placed team with the worst record will also be relegated.
The real prize on offer though for the first competition is that the winner of each league will qualify for EURO 2020.
This will see the qualifiers for EURO 2020 slightly tweaked in that the top 2 in each group will still go through, but there will no longer be playoffs. If the winner of a league has already qualified as a result of the regular qualification, then the next-highest ranked team gets the EURO 2020 spot.
This competition has been met with a lot of scepticism, but I think it’s a great idea. The teams in League A and B can’t complain too much, as they will play fewer Nations League games, which still gives them the opportunity to arrange friendlies against other teams from UEFA or other confederations on the other international dates.
At the same time though, they can’t afford to take a slapdash approach to their Nations League games for two reasons.
Firstly, despite the likelihood is that all of the teams in League A, and most in League B would qualify anyway for EURO 2020, there’s usually at least one of the traditionally stronger national teams that has a terrible qualifying campaign, and the Nations League may represent a lifeline for them in terms of making the tournament. For example, the Netherlands failed to make either EURO 2016 or the 2018 World Cup, so would probably take the Nations League far more seriously than they would approach a bunch of friendlies.
Secondly, any team that takes their eye off the ball could end up trashing their FIFA ranking, which could then have a negative effect on draws for World Cup and European Championship qualifying as they could end up with a lower seeding, and therefore a tougher group.
For teams in League D, this is a massive boost. It’s not unheard of for one of the bottom 16 teams to qualify for a tournament; Northern Ireland did it in EURO 2016 qualifying, but for most of the teams in League D, this competition represents the chance-of-a-lifetime to qualify for a major tournament. Of all the teams in League D, only Latvia have prior experience of playing in a major tournament.
Even for the League D teams that don’t qualify for EURO 2020, or don’t even make it out of their group, it’s still a chance for them to win some games, gain some confidence and build some momentum going into their qualifying games and hopefully they can improve their ranking for next time.
The favourites from League D in terms of current ranking is Macedonia, who had a good World Cup qualifying campaign, which included a draw in Italy. Apart from them the teams I think are worth watching are Luxembourg, who have become a much more competitive team over the past few years, and got a draw in France in the World Cup qualifiers; and Faroe Islands, who had a solid World Cup Qualifying campaign that saw them concede 11 goals over the two games v Portugal, 4 goals in the two games against Switzerland, but only 1 other goal in their other 6 games, so they are a difficult team to beat.
In Europe, especially in the countries with strong domestic leagues, international football can be an afterthought. Something needed to be done to get people excited about international friendlies and, time will tell, but I think UEFA have done just that.
Instead of boring, pointless friendlies, we now have a format that simultaneously gives us competitive football, intriguing fixtures and a way to give a leg-up to UEFA’s so-called minnows without adversely affecting the higher-ranked teams. That has to be a good thing.