It has been an excellent year for international football. The 2018 World Cup was the most enjoyable edition of the tournament for at least 20 years, and the momentum generated in Russia has – in Europe at least – continued through the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League.
Scepticism was high before the campaign got under way in September and many were initially unable to wrap their heads around the competition’s complex format, but two months on and it is impossible to deny that the new tournament has been a major success.
Much of the focus in the recent international break centred on League A, whose four group winners advanced to the Nations League Finals next June. Portugal will host that event having topped their segment ahead of Italy and Poland; they will be joined by Switzerland, England and the Netherlands, all of whom finished first in their respective sections.
The Swiss qualified in the most dramatic circumstances, overturning a 2-0 deficit to beat Belgium 5-2 in a match they needed to win by a two-goal margin while scoring at least four goals. Portugal’s path was smoother, Fernando Santos’ men finishing three points clear of second-placed Italy, while the Netherlands required two late goals against Germany to climb above France at the summit of the Group 1 standings.
England’s clash with Croatia on Sunday was the Nations League at its thrilling best. The Three Lions came from behind to take a 2-1 lead in the closing stages, knowing that a win would take them through and relegate their opponents. There was still plenty to play for, however: a Croatia goal would have sent England down and catapulted Spain into the Finals, while two late efforts from the visitors to Wembley would have confirmed their own place in next summer’s four-team tournament.
All of the aforementioned nations have benefited from playing opponents of comparable quality in competitive matches – and the same applies to those lower down the European pyramid. In League D, some of the continent’s minnows have been afforded the invaluable opportunity to face countries of a similar standing, all without taking away their deserved right to participate in qualification for European Championships and World Cups alongside the likes of Germany, France and Spain.
Georgia, Belarus, Kosovo and Macedonia all secured top spot in their respective groups to earn promotion and retain a shot at earning a place at Euro 2020 – four teams from League D who do not qualify for the Europe-wide tournament will compete in the divisional play-offs, the winner of which will be among the 24 participants in two years’ time. There were other success stories too, including Luxembourg’s emphatic victories over Moldova (4-0) and San Marino (3-0), and Gibraltar’s narrower triumphs over Armenia (1-0) and Liechtenstein (2-1).
Up in League B, Russia maintained the feel-good factor from the World Cup by topping Group 2, with Denmark, Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina also winning promotion to the top tier. In League C, meanwhile, Scotland, Finland, Norway and Serbia were all victorious and could potentially meet Germany, Croatia or Poland in League B in 2020/21, as well as earning a second chance at Euro 2020 qualification through the play-offs.
Those are the specifics; in more general terms, the Nations League has helped revitalise international football in Europe. Interruptions to the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A et al. are no longer bemoaned to the extent they once were, with fans now taking a much stronger interest in their fate of their national team outside of summer tournaments.
The structure of (for the most part) three-team leagues means there is still space in the calendar for friendlies, but these meaningless affairs have largely been replaced by competitive fixtures with tangible prizes on the line. Footballing authorities across the world tend to receive much more criticism than praise, so it is only fair to acknowledge that UEFA have got the Nations League absolutely right.
(Greg Lea of thesetpieces.com).
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