UEFA's League of Nations sounds good, so what's the catch?
The instinctive reaction to UEFA's unveiling of its plans for a League of Nations is confusion -- and not just because the press release was so badly worded that nobody actually understands it. On the one hand, something that diminishes the number of meaningless international friendlies has to be a good thing, but on the other, it's hard not to greet any new UEFA initiative, particularly one involving a convoluted tournament format, with anything but suspicion.
The plan, such as anybody can follow it -- and even UEFA's press office has taken to responding to journalists seeking clarification with weary chuckles -- is as follows. UEFA's 54 members are divided into four divisions of 12-16 teams, A, B C and D, determined by ability. Those teams will then be divided into four pools of three or four who will play each other home and away between September and December 2018. The winners of each pool are promoted into the division above and go into playoffs to be held the following summer, while the bottom-placed sides are relegated. Somehow -- and this is where the real confusion lies -- the league will be integrated into the qualifying competition for Euro 2020, with the division winners all guaranteed a place at the finals.
All 54 UEFA members voted in favor of the plan and there are sound football reasons behind it. Perhaps there is a limit to how much competitive football top players should be expected to play, but nobody gains from the half-paced borefests most friendlies usually become, usually riven by pre-arranged substitutions to pacify club managers (Wayne has a delicate hammy so take him off after an hour; Stevie's a bit tired so can't play more than 25 minutes, etc.). For those lower down the scale there is genuine competitive football against teams of a similar level, which can only be advantageous for their development: far better for, say, San Marino to take on Andorra in a game either could win than simply looking to keep the score in single figures against a Germany or a Spain.
This being football, though, and this being UEFA, there is always the bigger question of why? Who benefits? The top nations, clearly, are motivated by money. More games with at least some meaning against a better quality of opposition should mean bigger crowds and bigger television deals. Lower down the scale, the fact that the winner of Division 4 qualifies automatically for the Euros is of obvious benefit to the teams who might fancy themselves at the top end of the fourth quarter of European teams (taking the present FIFA rankings as a guide, Northern Ireland, Estonia or Azerbaijan). That is obviously good for them, but it may also be a vote-winner for Platini both in UEFA and FIFA elections.
And that's where we come to the bigger picture. This, I should stress, is speculation, a possibility rooted in logic rather than hard fact. Within FIFA, UEFA is always engaged in an understandable power struggle -- between themselves, the historical home of the game that still generates the bulk of football's revenue, and emerging regions who feel UEFA is too dominant. If UEFA has not just the European Championship but also the League of Nations with which to raise revenue, it is an enormous bargaining chip. Sepp Blatter has repeatedly told the Asian and African confederations that they deserve greater representation at the World Cup; UEFA, as the confederation with the most qualifying slots, would be the confederation to surrender a place. If it has a lucrative League of Nations to fall back on, UEFA might conceivably be able to turn its back on FIFA altogether: it could even add nations from other confederations -- Brazil and Argentina, more obviously, but perhaps also Mexico or the USA -- to bypass FIFA altogether.
That antipathy between FIFA and UEFA has been heightened by the personal rivalry between Blatter and Michel Platini, something that has crystallized over their differing views on the 2022 Qatar World Cup: Blatter very much against; Platini very much for. The press release outlining the League of Nations states merely that the play-offs between the group winners would be staged at a single neutral venue. It doesn't say that venue would necessarily be in Europe. It's surely not a huge step to see Qatar as a potential host. That possibility could become a key weapon in discussions over whether the 2022 World Cup will still be held in Qatar. The apocalyptic scenario is FIFA stripping Qatar of that tournament, only to find that a number of major European nations -- and perhaps others -- have decided to play there anyway, lured by enormous financial rewards.
But that is just speculation and it's perhaps over-cynical to view every development as another battle in the ongoing cold war between Platini and Blatter. This will reduce meaningless football, raise revenues and should help the development of the lower-ranked nations. It may be a very good thing. It's just that this is UEFA.