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Have UEFA made a mess of the UEFA Nations League?

Wednesday 5th September 2018

The UEFA Nations League kicks off in this international break. Wales and Ireland face off on Thursday. England open against Spain on Saturday. Scotland take on Albania on Monday. Four places in the 2020 European Championships are up for grabs. The stakes increase intensity well beyond meaningless exhibitions but the format leaves a lot to be desired.

Fifty-five nations split into four leagues based on their UEFA rankings. The top 12 clubs occupy League A, the bottom 16 League D, those ranked slightly better or worse than average fit into Leagues B [12 teams] and C [15] respectively. Mismatches are all but eliminated but the teams who finish 1st, 13th, 25th and 40th overall gain a place in the 2020 finals.

Is it fair for a country coming through a League A group to fall short in the semifinals while wins against San Marino, Andorra, Gibraltar or other minnows qualifies Luxembourg or Lichtenstein for the Euro finals? From League D, only Latvia have reached a major tournament.  Teams eliminated in the Nations League can still qualify through traditional UEFA qualifiers but a team who finishes third in a much tougher competition misses out at their expense.

International football's major tournaments are undergoing ridiculous expansion. Euro 2016 was the first European Championships to feature 24 teams. Previously, 16 countries qualified. The 2026 World Cup finds room for 48 teams rather than 32. The product can only be diluted by increasing participation, not strengthened. The powers that be don't care. More games bring in more money through additional ticket sales and television revenue. More participants increase merchandise sales and profit margins for governing bodies.

League A and League B winners rank first and 13th in Europe. They deserve to compete in a 24-team field. League C's champion ranks 25th, which elsewhere rules them out. Can you imagine a tournament at the Premier League season's conclusion in which Swansea stayed up at a top-six side's expense without ever facing one? What about League D, even further down? Reading finished 20th in the Championship last campaign, which ranks them 40th in the English pyramid. In a Nations League format, they'd oust a top-six side without getting near one, as well.

Allowing minnows to qualify at the expense of talented countries is wrong. Maybe that's elitist but what else is a competition if not Darwinian? The European Championship decides which nation is the continent's elite squad. To do so fairly, all the best teams must participate.

Entries given at a discount rate for countries who don't usually qualify for major tournaments are nice; I'll give you that. But there's no room for nice in a championship. Titles are not given. Weaker teams should earn their way up the pyramid just as clubs fight through promotion and relegation. Portsmouth and Sunderland were in the Premier League in the last decade. Both now inhabit League One. Meanwhile, Bournemouth and Huddersfield rose after decades in the lower leagues. They did so without any 'nice' shortcuts. Why can't the Nations League operate on the same tried and true principal?

Already, teams exploit rules in World Cup qualifying. The FIFA World Rankings decide seedings. Friendlies don't reflect well on the rankings. Some teams avoid them to gain the higher ranking's favourable draw in qualification campaigns. Now, bubble teams and rank outsiders [pun intended] in the Nations League can tank one tournament to drop down to League C or D in the next, gaming a better opportunity at the next major tournament, be it a World Cup or Euro. Up is the only direction in which federations in a truly competitive format should be interested. 

Every true fan expects to see the best compete at major tournaments. By the best, I mean the product on the pitch, not the machinations in the boardroom. The UEFA Nations League doesn't reward the best teams. It's a format that needs to be revised at the earliest opportunity.

Europa League Fixtures
Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.

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