“The boss,” said Harry Maguire this week, “tried to explain it to us the best he could the other day. I think he has got his head around it now, but it took a lot of studying. It is confusing, but for us players, we just go into each game trying to win it and see where it takes us.”
The England defender is not alone in looking at the structure of the new UEFA Nations League and feeling a sense of bewilderment. It isn’t like anything top-level football has seen before, and there are elements that don’t feel quite right. But it’s not that baffling. From Maguire’s point of view, all he has to worry about is a group of three teams–England, Spain and Croatia: if England finishes at the top, it goes into a four-team semifinals next summer; if it finishes bottom, it is relegated into a lower division.
This, essentially, is a plan to make countries take international friendlies more seriously, in part because the likes of Poland and Romania had been gaming the ranking system. They eschewed friendlies after they had worked out that playing them inevitably reduced a side’s coefficient and thus their chances of being seeded at major tournaments.
The 55 UEFA nations were divided into four leagues according to their FIFA coefficient at the end of the World Cup qualifiers: 12 in Leagues A and B, 15 in League C and 16 in League D. They were then seeded within those leagues into four pots, and drawn into four groups: each of three teams in Leagues A and B, of four teams in League D and three of four and one of three in League C. Each team plays each of the other teams in the group home and away, starting his week and ending in November.
The top side in each group in Leagues B, C and D will be promoted, and the bottom side in Leagues A, B and C relegated. In addition, the top side in each group in League A will meet next summer to play for the title of Nations League champion. So much, so straightforward.
Where it becomes complicated is in the way the Nations League impacts Euro 2020, for which qualifying begins next March. The 55 teams will be drawn into groups as usual, but this time the qualifying stage will produce 20 teams for the 24-team competition. A further 16 teams will then enter playoffs in March 2020 to claim the four remaining slots–those 16 to be determined by performance in the Nations League.
Those 16 sides will be divided into four “paths” of four, with each pathway offering a route to the Euros. And this is where it does become really complicated.
In theory, each pathway will represent one league and will consist of group-winners. If the group winner has already qualified, then it will be the next best team from that group; or if all teams in the group have already qualified then of the next highest-ranked side from that league. Of course, it’s entirely likely that there will not be four teams who have failed to qualify from League A, in which case they will be replaced by the next-highest ranked side that has not already qualified–with the proviso that group winners can’t face teams from a higher league.
In practice, what that will probably mean is the four group winners from League D playing off for one spot at the Euros, with a mess of teams from higher up. That effectively guarantees one minnow will qualify (the highest seeding pot from League D consists of Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus and Georgia), which can be seen as a positive or negative depending on whether you regard the tournament as being about spreading the game or pitting the best sides against each other. It’s arguable that an in-form minnow is likely to perform better than an out-of-form mid-ranked side, and the expansion to 24 teams has killed any sense of elite competition from the group stage, anyway.
The danger is that in initial qualifying, it becomes advantageous for a side with an eye on the playoffs to help another country because of what that will then do to the make-up of supplementary qualifying – which is always the problem when competitions are not arranged in discrete silos.
But whether the Nations League should be linked to Euro qualifying, and if so in what way, are quibbles for further down the line. At its heart, the Nations League ensures at least semi-competitive international football that pits teams teams of roughly equivalent ability against each other. And in that sense, however daunting the structure may look, it is an initiative to be welcomed.