Dreaded by managers and fans alike, international breaks were becoming questioned more and more as a necessary element of the football season. Not qualification rounds, but rather the mind-numbing friendlies. Mounted on top of this is media analysts’ negative exaggeration of sides such as Scotland losing 4-0 to the World Cup Bronze medallists Belgium – not exactly constructive for players or fans. The threat of injuries and the perception of a lower quality of football because of this has led UEFA to produce a solution to the tedious stoppages of a frantic UK season.
Although confusing to grasp, the Nations League is essentially a competitive replacement for friendlies, with teams placed into groups alongside 2 or 3 opponents of similar ability based on UEFA ranking. There are 4 groups in each of the 4 leagues with the winners of the groups in the lower three leagues being promoted to the next highest league and likewise with the group losers being relegated. Still following? The winners of League A’s groups compete to win the tournament outright, with other group winners being given the opportunity to use this tournament as a pathway into the European Championships in 2020, but it’s best not to delve into that.
For most teams and fans, the structure of the tournament will remain irrelevant. However, as stated, it is designed to quench the impatient thirst of the terrace regulars with games where their national team appear to be on a level playing field with their opponent. It will be an intriguing case to follow but during its teething period, we have seen Scotland play Albania in front of a half-empty Hampden. Granted, playing Albania is not the most exciting prospect for fans to venture out on a Tuesday night but one can only imagine that this is the exact case that UEFA are hopeful to avoid with its new creation. Scotland however are an outlier in this conversation. Only a couple of weeks ago, the SFA made an executive decision for Scottish football to remain at Hampden rather than be relocated along the M8 to Murrayfield (fanning the fire of the recent depression in International football interest), however, this is no reason to suggest that the Nations League would work in an alternative location in Scotland. The fact of the matter is that International football has lost its magic and competitiveness. There is a fine line to be drawn between viewing competitive football and viewing boring football and unfortunately, it has fallen into the latter category. Scotland lose 4-0 to Belgium in a friendly – unrealistic competition. Scotland comfortably beat Albania 2-0 – the opposition offer little and the game is dull. Can UEFA win?
The simple answer is no. There will of course be the hard-core international fans who go to every game but for the rest of us, these only become interesting when your nation reaches a major tournament or when the World Cup begins. As part of the ‘rest’, I spend the fortnight waiting for the return of Match of the Day and Fantasy Football hoping that my captain choice doesn’t get injured. Neither fans nor UEFA are to blame for the monotony of these games but rather the globalisation of football in the U.K. and the appeal of the Premier League worldwide. The money, the pace of the games and the exposure that players receive in England can compromise their determinism to get ‘stuck in’, as it were, in Internationals.
I doubt that the Nations League will make any ground-breaking change in the way that fans view these breaks in their season ticket, however, it can help. Not only will the number of competitive games increase but furthermore, it will aid the growth of smaller nations in their belief that they can work their way up to the big leagues without having to face opposition with far greater resources to get there.