The UEFA Nations League is here! And it is confusing!

Antoine Antoniol

From 2018, the national sides of Europe will compete in a third major tournament, as UEFA attempts to solve the tricky problem of international friendlies.

It is the autumn of 2018, and the football season is just beginning. The World Cup in Russia has drawn to a conclusion — Ukraine's victory came as a pleasant and amusing surprise — and the nations of UEFA are gearing up for their continental qualifiers ahead of Euro 2020: Michel Platini's Grand Tour. Qualification for Euro 2016 — Wales, since you ask — began in the September of 2014, but this time around, qualification will be delayed. An anxious continent trembles in anticipation as the UEFA Nations League is born.

Here is the plan, such as it is; the "exact format has not been finalised". The 54 footballing entities of Europe will be divided into four divisions according to their coefficient rankings, which for the sake of this piece we'll call A, B, C and Do They Really All Have Other Jobs? How Quaint. These four divisions are then further divided into four groups of three or four teams — A1, A2, A3, A4 — and, between September and November 2018, these sub-groups will resolve their footballing differences in the traditional manner.

At the end of which, each sub-group will have a winner, and each group will have four. The winners of group A will make up the Final Four, who at some point in 2019 will play off to determine the winner of the League of Nations. They will get something big and silver and shiny for their efforts, and football fans the world over are keen to discover just how hideous a monstrosity UEFA will commission.

This is where things get a little confusing. Here is an important sentence from UEFA's media release:

The final four competition, involving the four pool group-winners of group A, will start in 2019, whereas play-offs for the UEFA EURO will then take place in March 2020. National teams will thus either be competing to become UEFA Nations League champions, or be fighting for promotion and to avoid relegation in their groups, as well as to qualify for EURO play-offs.

Elsewhere in the release UEFA state that four teams will qualify for the Euro 2020 finals via the Nations League; indications have been that these teams won't just be the strongest. It would make sense, then, for these four teams to be the winners of each division. But that would mean that either a final four competition will be needed for each division, not just group A as indicated above, or the other divisions will be rationalised by conflating the four sub-group tables, which feels like something of a fudge. Promotion and relegation isn't entirely clear either: will it simply be a case of the four winners of each sub-group swapping places with the four worst teams above them? Given that some will contain three teams, and others four, this would at best involve discounting some or other results.

If that's what happens, then at the end of November 2018 four teams will have qualified for Euro 2020, nearly two years early. This still leaves 20 Euro 2020 places to allocate.

Qualifying for the UEFA EURO remains largely the same, although qualifying will now begin in the March following a major tournament instead of immediately in September, with four teams qualifying for each final tournament via the UEFA Nations League

"Largely the same" would, on the face of it, suggest nine or so groups with some automatic qualifiers and some others progressing to play-offs. What of the four already-qualified teams? Well, either they'll kick their heels in a World Cup host-style, playing friendlies as and when they can scrape them together, or they'll more likely be entered into qualification in the same manner as France ahead of their hosting in 2016, as a zombie team, playing games that don't really mean anything. This raises the vaguely farcical prospect of the champions of Group Do They Really All Have Other Jobs? How Quaint getting hammered all the way through a nominal qualification process, then gadding off to the same finals as whoever topped their group, presumably with giant grins on their faces.

Now go back, if you have the strength of will, to that first quote above. Note that it says "to qualify for EURO play-offs". Not "to qualify for EURO 2020". UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino has said that the four qualifiers from the Nations League will be teams "who have not otherwise qualified through the qualifiers," which suggests that UEFA might adopt a retrospective approach. Perhaps there will be no play-offs after the qualifiers. Perhaps, instead, 20 teams will progress automatically, and then eight teams who did well in the Nations League but didn't manage to qualify will go into play-offs to determine the four places. Those play-offs will be in March 2020, fully 16 months after the conclusion of the League. That, surely, will be a record wait between competition and play-off. Think of the state of the fingernails.

Perhaps your correspondent is being thick; perhaps UEFA just aren't very good at writing press releases. The "exact format has not been finalised", after all. What's important here is the principle: nobody likes friendlies. The key driver of the Nations League is, apparently, "sporting integrity, as member associations increasingly feel that friendly internationals are not providing adequate sporting competition". It will also allow "all nations to play competitively at their level," as well as "maintaining the balance between club and international football." A cynic might suggest that competitive games are likely to be worth a few dollars more in television rights. And there will still be a few friendlies, which will come as a relief to those teams in Europe that quite appreciate the effect that a visit from Brazil can have on the turnstiles.

But enough of the cynicism. If international friendlies are a problem — and the entire continent, from big to small, appear to agree on that — then this is at least a solution. A complicated, half-formed, potentially peculiar one, yes, but still. It's competitive football, and it at the very least should grant a couple of unfamiliar faces a crack at a major tournament. It's not clear whether anybody will care more about the tussle for leadership of Group C2 than they do the friendlies we have now, but it would be hard for anybody to care less.

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