The new instalment in European football, the UEFA Nations League (explained), has predictably divided opinion as to its purpose and necessity after the first two rounds. Do people really care? Is it just a money-grab by UEFA? Is it too much for the players who start for both club and country?
Yes, some do care. Yes it is a smart financial move by UEFA. And yes, it probably is too much on the players, as a fiery Jürgen Klopp argued recently:
“Now the players go off and play the Nations League which is the most senseless competition in the world. We have to start thinking about the players. You have to call the manager of any country and say can you leave players out and he says I am under pressure as well,” he said, exemplifying the “less intense than usual” 0-0 draw against Man City as a consequence of the increased pressures put on the players from the new tournament.
But let’s dive into the whys, and conclude with who the winners and losers are in this new competition. Is football better because of it?
The biggest beneficiary of the Nations League are the fans. The “international lull” isn’t so monotonous anymore. Meaningless friendlies have been substituted for official, more competitive games. National teams field better starting elevens and the players are incentivised to take the games more seriously, because there are now stakes on the table for both players and managers in the form of rankings, reputation and money. Promotion and relegation is one the line as well.
Wales manager Ryan Giggs said, “I think if you go through all the groups and all the pots, they’ll be really competitive.
“I think that’s what UEFA wanted, to have it more competitive, and I think that’s what you’ve got.
“It’s great for a manager, it’s a new concept, a new start, it will take a bit for the players and the fans to get their head around. But I think once they do, they’ll really enjoy it because of what I said, really competitive games.”
We, the spectators, received the gift that was England’s 3-2 win against Spain, where the stakes where on full display in the players’ determination and energy. And, if you’re from one of the countries in the two lower leagues in the competition, like Finland, Norway, Montenegro, Israel, Georgia and many more, national football is interesting maybe for the first time. Predictable losses are swapped for more even results, maybe a couple of wins. In sports, a match-up isn’t worth anything if there nothing to compete for. UEFA has fixed this issue.
From a sporting point of view, the lowest ranked teams in Europe are the beneficiaries. The Nations League isn’t a replacement of the traditional qualifiers, where a group typically consists of two top ranked teams, two mid-table teams and two weak teams, but an addition. A direct replacement of international friendlies. In the Nations League the 16 weakest teams will play each other instead and the winners in their tier (League D) will have a more realistic, but still unlikely, chance to qualify for the 2020 Euros. The traditional qualifier holds 20 spots for the Euros, but the Nations League have four up for grabs. These four spots are awarded in a play-off consisting of the winners of all 16 groups in the tournament, meaning four of the weakest teams in Europe will reach the play-off in the summer of 2019 and have a slightly bigger chance of qualifying for a major tournament.
It’s a controversial format and one could argue that it’s not right to give such a handicap to the weaker teams, “Only the best, the ones who really deserve it, should qualify.” Absolutely, and that outcome is still likely, as the play-off will probably see match-ups such as France-Georgia and Spain-Luxembourg.
UEFA and the participant countries are the financial winners. As the rights-holder and organiser, UEFA receives more money in form of sponsorships and broadcasting rights. The 55 participant teams will play a total of 220 games between them. That’s 220 games of revenue for UEFA. But, the majority of the money UEFA makes this way will be distributed back to the countries involved. Everyone makes more money.
There are two obvious losers in this. The biggest one by far are the top clubs, the clubs who send most of their squad on national duty every international break. When there’s something to compete for, the players and managers, who are successful because of their determination and ambition, will be naturally pushed further than before. A consequential influx of injuries and precautions from the clubs are imminent. As Klopp mentioned about an increase of pressure on the national team managers to perform, they have less reason to rest their best players as often as before. This bleeds into the next issue.
The development of players, especially young prospects, is at risk as well. At national level, no matter the reputation of the country, competition for playing time is already mountainous for the young and second best players who want to take that next step. Fielding their second best or more inexperienced players is increasingly risky at national level. Prospects are likely to suffer in the hands of ambition.
Not “senseless” but has a price
How much better is football because of Nations League? At the moment, slightly.
Klopp is right in that it’s more difficult for the clubs and harder on the players, but it’s definitely not “senseless”. It makes football more competitive, even and fun for everyone, especially countries who are expected to lose most games. But the price is jeopardising player development and players’ physical strain, that can eventually harm club football.
It’s making national football better for sure, but if club football – what is undeniably most important and popular – ends up suffering through exhausted or injured stars throughout the season, then Nations League should conclude as a failed experiment after its first try.