As World Cup hope fades, Europeans turn to Nations League
GENEVA (AP) For European teams fading out of the 2018 World Cup picture, a new opportunity opens if they lose their qualifying match this weekend.
Meet the Nations League.
The complex format created by UEFA to replace most unloved national team friendlies kicks off in 18 months' time.
By Sunday night, for teams with slim-to-none World Cup hopes, their next meaningful match with qualification at stake might be their Nations League debut.
It offers a second-chance path to major tournaments - the 2020 European Championship for sure and, UEFA intends, the 2022 World Cup - for teams which have not been in in a generation, or ever.
For teams failing to finish in the top two of a traditional Euro 2020 qualifying group, a subsequent playoff round is based on Nations League standings. It will send at least one of UEFA's lowest-ranked teams to the 24-team tournament.
For fans of Norway and Scotland, Armenia and Kazakhstan, it's almost time to learn to love the Nations League:
WHY CREATE THE NATIONS LEAGUE?
''The friendlies really don't interest anybody, neither the audience at large, neither the journalists nor the players,'' UEFA's then-president Michel Platini said in launching the competition in March 2014.
Top-ranked teams wanted games against each other, middle-ranked teams wanted winnable competitive games, low-ranked teams wanted hope of playing at tournaments.
Norway helped draft the Nations League plan. Its most recent tournaments were Euro 2000 and the 1998 World Cup, where it played Scotland, also enduring a two-decade tournament drought.
On Sunday, Norway and Scotland are fifth-place teams in World Cup qualifying groups facing another early exit if they lose against second-place opponents, Northern Ireland and Slovenia, respectively.
''The whole landscape of football has changed since (1998),'' said Scotland federation president Alan McRae, who was at the 1-1 draw with Norway in Bordeaux 19 years ago. ''(The Nations League) is very important for the smaller nations.''
WHAT IS THE NATIONS LEAGUE?
A new competition for all 55 UEFA members with three parts. A group stage from September-November 2018; Final Four mini-tournament in June 2019 for high-ranked teams; playoffs in March 2020 to fill the last four Euro 2020 qualifying places.
The group stage is the complicated bit.
League A has the 12 top-ranked teams playing in three-team groups. Group winners advance to the Final Four at a venue to be decided. That will crown the Nations League champion.
League B is another 12-team tier for teams ranked Nos. 13-24. Group winners are promoted to League A in the next Nations League groups two years later. Last-place teams are relegated to League C.
League C is for 15 teams ranked Nos. 25-39, also with promotion and relegation. League D is for the 16 lowest-ranked teams, and group winners are promoted.
WHAT HAPPENS TO EURO 2020 QUALIFYING?
It starts late in March 2019 and group-stage games are completed that year.
The draw - with five groups of five teams and five six-team groups - is influenced by Nations League results. Teams set to play in the Final Four are placed in a five-team Euro 2020 qualifying group. With fewer matches, their schedule is clear for the June 2019 mini-tournament.
The top two teams in each group will fill 20 places at Euro 2020, being played in 13 different countries with no automatic entries for hosts.
The remaining four Euro 2020 places are decided by playoffs in March 2020 with 16 more teams. Each Nations League tier has four teams in a semifinals-and-final format. Rules relating to home advantage are not yet agreed.
So, just three months before Euro 2020 kicks off in June, there will be 20 qualified teams, 16 involved in playoffs, and only 19 countries actually eliminated.
The playoffs, in theory, are for Nations League group winners. If those teams already advanced to Euro 2020 through traditional qualifying groups, then a playoff position goes to the next-ranked team needing a second chance.
In League D playoffs, the lineup on current rankings could include Belarus, Estonia and the Faeroe Islands. A place at Euro 2020 is on offer.
LEAGUE OF LOSERS?
Critics will say it sends teams to Euro 2020 that are just not good enough by usual qualifying rules.
Not so, say the teams which could benefit and UEFA marketing officials selling the new competition to broadcasters and sponsors, albeit wrapped in a complete package with Euro and World Cup matches.
''Winners go to the playoffs, that speaks for itself. It's all about winners,'' Scotland's McRae said.
UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein said TV executives like it when all teams are competitive at their own level.
''These matches are relevant for every single market so you optimize in each market,'' Epstein said.
For stronger nations, winning a trophy is still important, according to Italy federation CEO Michele Uva, who acknowledged fans need to be won over.
''In the beginning it was tough also for me, but now it's working and we will invest a lot in communications,'' said Uva, a member of UEFA's competitions committee steering the Nations League.
''The first edition needs to be successful,'' he said. ''All of us are ready to change the format, or to change something, if it will not work.''