How Sustainable Is The UEFA Nations League?

How Sustainable Is The UEFA Nations League?

England, Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland move forward in the UEFA Nations League Finals. The four League A group winners will now enter the Finals draw that takes place in Dublin on Monday, December 3. The draw determines the two semi-finals happening on June 5-6, with the two winners then meeting on June 9 for a chance to become the first ever winner of UEFA’s latest national competition.

However, the tournament is more than just about the international teams. Questions surround the event whether it will become sustainable in the coming years.

When the UEFA Nations League was first announced, few would blame if you were to doubt the idea. To simplify things, it was an event that would eventually replace friendly matches with competitive fixtures to bring the action up a notch. But, this sounded like a complete money grab to many.

When the tournament kicked off, the questions on everyone’s minds were focused on how the teams would cope. Will they be giving more playing time to the reserves? Are the clubs willing to risk their players as the event would coincide with the season?

Well, if you’re still looking for answers, all you have to do is go back to Sunday’s England vs Croatia match. The crowd inside Wembley Stadium as England forced a winner was more than just exciting. In short, the fans, players, and the teams care about this tournament.

As the group stage wraps up, it’s difficult to tell if the tournament will actually turn out to be a success. France has gotten a chance to polish their World Cup winning squad. England was able to gel their young talent into the squad and prove that their trip to the World Cup semi finals wasn’t a flue. Germany learned that their World Cup meltdown run much deeper. Overall, the games have been top-notch.

The concept behind the league was to group the teams according to their performance. Hence, this would give more balance to the matches. To make sure that happens, the top teams in each group are promoted while the bottom teams in each group are relegated.

The league-style format added plenty of drama to this competition. England and Croatia both could have won their group or been relegated in their match. Meanwhile, the Netherlands match against France presented the Dutch with a chance to relegate Germany to League B.

Nevertheless, this can act as a double-edged sword for the competition wherein it can add more thrill to the game but at the same time make the Nations League unsustainable.

The idea behind the promotion and relegation is definitely unique for an international competition of this level. Currently, Iceland are on their top form, but when this current generation goes up the ranks will they be able to match their performance? The same can be said about Poland when Robert Lewandowski retires. With relegation, these teams will drop down to be on their correct level. Meanwhile, teams with up and coming young generations will have the chance to go up the ranks and face the big guns.

That format is attractive on paper, but what happens in a few years time when lineups begin to move. Part of the problem involves the three team groups in the top leagues. Since Germany, Holland, and France were all grouped together, one had to go down. When that happens, they won’t just be playing teams from Group B, but likely a team that just climbed up from Group C.

The goal of the tournament was to have evenly matched games. But, in two years we could see France facing Bosnia and Herzegovina. The former could be playing a 34-year old Edin Dzeko, or a completely new generation of players who lack international experience. In League B, revamped Germany could be heading to Finland or even Israel. Looking at it, many would think that those games will be far from competitive.

Of course over time, the balance between the teams should return. But one thing about this sport is that predictions never really seem to pan out the way they’re supposed to. Some might go right back to League A, while other teams drop to League B.

The way the UEFA Nations League stands, each team only plays four games in the group. That means one result can greatly affect future matches. With these games coming in two week periods over the course of three months, a key player picking up a minor injury and sitting out one game could be the deciding factor.

That’s the nature of the sport. It’s random. Upsets can happen anytime. Injuries are looming. A youngster ups his game and carries his country. Put all of that together and it’s not inconceivable that in two or three editions of the Nations League, each of the leagues will be completely mixed up.

Should that happen, the Nations League would then resemble the World Cup or European qualifying, in which case, what’s the point of the tournament?

It doesn’t have to end up that way. There are easy fixes for these issues. Firstly, the relegation factor should be turned down.

Instead of promoting and relegating four teams from each league, a promotion/relegation playoff can occur. The bottom four teams get drawn against each other and play in June–when the Nations League semi finals are taking place. This way only two teams are promoted and relegated, keeping the groups balanced.
Another solution that could keep the tournament competitive is to rebalance the leagues. Under the current template, Leagues A and B have four groups of three teams each, League C has one group of three, and three groups of four, while League D has four groups of four teams.

Give it a good shuffle and put 16 teams in League A. The entire groups stage could still continue with three international breaks. This would take away two friendlies from each teams calendar.

Under this format, four teams would still be relegated but remember that four teams that were in League B for this competition would have started the tournament in League A. Teams like Poland and Iceland would have still had their work cut out form them, but it would also help keep the stronger teams in one pack. That redistribution would trickle down to all the remaining groups where smaller teams can get promoted easily, giving them a better chance to improve their game.

Ultimately, if the UEFA Nations League refreshes its framework, we’d be looking at a more exciting tournament for years to come. Under the current template, all we can do is hope for things to balance out in a few years.