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Since 2011, UEFA have been working on a brand new international tournament as a way to turn the off-year friendlies into a competitive league. And after 6 years of planning, UEFA have finally announced it will commence after this year's qualifiers, but what exactly is the UEFA Nations League (UNL) and how will it work?
The UNL will operate with 55 teams split into 4 leagues, with each league having sub-groups of 3 or 4 teams. So far, so complicated. The leagues, labelled A, B, C and D, will break up the 55 times into seeds based off the UEFA rankings that will be taken in November 2017 after the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers have been played.
The key word is League and not groups, as is done for the World Cup. Labelling the leagues A-D may be a misnomer as it in fact works as 1st to 4th. Whatever teams come first in their respective groups at the end of the cycle will be promoted up a league,and likewise the last place positions will be relegated down. So the winner of League C, group 3 will move up to a League B group, as an example. As for League A, when it gets to the end of the cycle the winners of groups 1-4 will go into the Final Four competition. Simply this is the knock-out stage of the tournament with single-leg semi-finals followed by the final. The winner is crowned champion until the next cycle begins.
You may wonder exactly how a 55 team tournament can be fit into the schedules of Euro's, World Cups, the qualifiers for both, European club competitions, domestic leagues and domestic cup fixtures. However the proposition is quite simple, in repurposing existing international friendly match schedules. "Double Header" friendly international matches normally take place towards the end of the year as a means of fine-tuning squads for upcoming tournaments or teething young players into the senior squad. By implementing the UNL these matches are now competitive, which has long been a complaint by national coaches and FA's.
The current format for Euro qualifiers are 9 groups of 6 teams. In the revised format once the UNL is implemented it will be 5 groups of 6 teams and 5 groups of 5 teams with the winner and runner up of each group qualifying for the Euro's. This will fill up 20 of the available 24 spots for the Euro's, with the last 4 spots to be divided between the 4 UEFA Nations League play-offs.
This means the Euro qualifiers will now coincide with and be effected by the UNL, however it is best expressed through a timeline:
- November 2017 - the qualifiers dictate the ranking for the UNL
- September, October & November 2018 - the UNL group games take place over 6 match days
- March, June, September, October & November 2019 - 2 match days a month for the Euro qualifiers
- June 2019 - Final Four competition of the UNL takes place
- March 2020 - Play-off matches for Euro 2020
UEFA's reasoning behind creating the UNL is to make the yearly friendly fixture of matches have greater importance, for both fans and professionals. Coaches have long complained that the period between Euro's and World Cups (2 years without including qualifiers) is too long a period for national teams to operate as a cohesive unit. That is why the UNL is specifically placed to occur on odd numbered years to fill in the gap between the other major tournaments. If sporting competition breeds better athletes then it is the play-off spots that contribute to this more than structuring fixtures on the calender.
As each of the 4 vacant spots for the Euro's is allocated 1 to each league, this means that lower ranking teams face off against each other for a guarenteed spot in the Euro's. Sky Sports have the exclusive rights for the UNL, and along with the rest of Europe this could be a great source of revenue for poorer nations to redistribute into their footballing infrastructure to produce improved crops of players for the future.
As the UEFA rankings currently stand this is how the UNL will be seeding teams, though it won't be until November this year that the divisions will be finalised.