The grist du jour for the soccer-media content mill is the “UEFA Nations League” explainer.
The Telegraph went with: “Uefa Nations League explained in four simple (ish) steps.” The Independent offered up their twist on the venerated “What time does the Super Bowl start?” tradition with: “Uefa Nations League: What is it, how does it work, when will it start, what group are England in?” Meanwhile, Football365 decided to say what their more traditional headline-writing colleagues could not: “So what the f*** is the UEFA Nations League?”
The bafflement extends beyond those just covering or watching the games. Not even Harry Maguire, ol’ Slab-head himself, who will be playing in the Nations League this weekend when England kicks their campaign off against Spain, really knows what’s going on. “It is confusing, but we are trying to get our heads round it,” he told the Telegraph. For us players, we just go into each game trying to win it and see where it takes us. So we will see after the game.”
You know what’s not confusing? Watching a 19-year-old attacking midfielder from Georgia named Giorgi Chakvetadze glide across the wet artificial turf in Astana, Kazakhstan and plant one into the upper corner:
Giorgi Chakvetadze's amazing goal vs Kazakhstan. ⚽— Dito Chichinadze (@Ditvi_Na) September 6, 2018
First ever UEFA Nations League goal. pic.twitter.com/hRjZQGvSzs
The Nations League is UEFA’s attempt to replace meaningless and turgid friendly matches with competitive games. Even if it doesn’t work, and Giorgi never hits another ball like that, it’s still worth the shot.
So ... what the f*** is the UEFA Nations League? There are 55 members of the European soccer confederation, and the Nations League splits them into four leagues: The top 12 are in league A, the second 12 in league B, the third 15 in league C, and the final 16, including Georgia and Kazakhstan, are in League D. Each league has four groups, and the last-place finishers will be demoted to a lower league, while the first-place teams will get promoted to the next league up. Next June, the four group winners in League A will play a mini-tournament to determine the Nations League champion. And on top of that, four teams will also earn automatic qualification to Euro 2020.
“I think that this is a step in the right direction, and it feels to me that you’re more likely to develop the competition/parallel competitions in other continents than take a step back to old-fashioned friendlies,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consulting firm 21st Club, told me. “Downsides with the current format is obviously the slightly confusing link to Euro 2020 qualifying, but I think people will understand it when it comes out in the wash. The aggressive promotion/relegation situation may also create unbalanced divisions in future editions.”
Outside of the quadrennial World Cup and continental competitions, international soccer otherwise goes dormant for the most part. Friendlies matter more for the bottom lines of federations than they do for squad development or on-field excitement. And qualifying for those major events occupies the weird hinterland of technically being a tournament but never actually crowning a champion. “No one wins, but a lot of teams also don’t lose!” is a resignation letter if you work in sports marketing. Meanwhile, the quality of the club game gets better with each passing year, as all of Europe’s top five leagues now bring in annual revenues exceeding $1 billion. The best players play for the best coaches—and they do it every week.
National teams can’t compete with that. However, as we saw this past summer, with the stumbles of Germany, Brazil, and Spain, and before then with the failed World Cup qualification attempts from Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, and the United States, the international game does offer the kind of high-level volatility that’s disappeared amid the growing inequality in club soccer.
Per FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Bayern Munich is a 90-percent favorite to win the Bundesliga, PSG is 85 percent in Ligue 1, Juventus is 60 percent in Serie A, Barcelona is 51 percent in La Liga, Manchester City is 44 percent in the Premier League—and not one of those teams has played more than four games. Before the World Cup, the favorites, Brazil, had a 19 percent chance of winning it all. Meanwhile, in the NFL, the New England Patriots are Super Bowl favorites at just 14 percent. And while the Red Sox are on pace to win the fifth-most games in baseball history, their World Series odds sit at 29 percent.
The worst-case scenario for the Nations League is that it’s no different from what we already have with the bloated friendly schedule: a succession of matches that both the players and managers don’t care about winning. And yes, Raheem Sterling pulled out of the England squad with a mysterious back injury despite playing 90 minutes for Manchester City last weekend, while Cristiano Ronaldo declined a Portugal call-up. Plus, the marquee fixture of the opening day saw the past two World Cup champs, France and Germany, play to a scoreless draw that never really got out of second gear. But the whole thing has only just begun, boredom is an accepted byproduct of even the best soccer, and both Germany and France did play close to full-strength squads. Didier Deschamps opted for the same 10 outfield players who won the World Cup final.
The best-case scenario is that the Nations League offers a compelling alternative to domestic competitions all throughout every year as opposed to just every other summer. In-season international breaks turn into something to potentially look forward to, rather than an object of ire for fans whose teams had supposedly built up momentum and for clubs whose top players got hurt. Rather than focusing only on whether or not their country was in danger of not qualifying for a major tournament, otherwise neutral fans watch games between teams they have no connection to for the same reasons they watch the World Cup: Competitive, compressed soccer tournaments are incredibly compelling.
CONCACAF has already decided it’s going to institute a Nations League of its own in 2019, and if these tournaments turn even a tiny profit, Africa and Asia will likely follow suit. In fact, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who helped come up with the idea of the Nations League when he was still the general secretary at UEFA, has already tried to get a green light for a global Nations League. After securing supposedly $25 billion to fund a league on each continent, Infantino refused to reveal the identity of the backers and then attempted to pressure the FIFA executive committee to fast-track his proposal earlier this year. That failed, and it eventually came to light that Saudi Arabia was behind most of the money. I’ll just leave this here:
Infantino, who has shown himself to be nothing more than Sepp Blatter concentrate with no hair and better-fitting suits since taking over in 2016, will likely continue to attempt to get his grubby paws onto the lucrative Nations League concept. But after the ExCo vote, the competition’s future with FIFA is uncertain. For now, the nascent concept ambles forward under the umbrella of UEFA for the next few days and beyond.
There’s no Premier League or La Liga this weekend, but Spain and England are playing a soccer game on Saturday. And it counts for something—even if no one knows exactly what it is yet.