The UEFA Nations League is just one tournament old but UEFA is already revamping the fledgling competition.
The changes will increase the number of teams in each group to four, and increase the number of matches each team plays. This means that in the 2020-21 edition of the Nations League, leagues A, B and C will be made up of four groups of four teams each, with the remaining seven UEFA teams playing in Group D.
Those moves will save Germany from relegation to the second tier of the Nations League, but there’s another reason why the changes could be unpopular.
When the Nations League was first formed, it had many critics, but the leap in competitiveness compared to regular friendly matches won a lot of those critics over.
England and Croatia’s surprise results against Spain meant that in England’s final Nations League group match against Croatia, they could finish either top, second or bottom of the three-team group.
Andrej Kramaric’s deflected goal early in the second half made it look like England would finish bottom and suffer the indignity of relegation to the second tier. But a late Harry Kane winner changed the arithmetic and England moved from bottom to top of the group. The wild celebrations when Kane’s shot hit the back of the net in the 85th minute showed that this game was more than just a friendly.
The Nations League has been a relative success because almost every game matters. This is a rare thing in European international soccer when even competitive matches like the current UEFA European Championship qualifying campaign can seem like a foregone conclusion. Fans often moan about the international break and international soccer in general, but the competitiveness of some of the Nations League matches was a small step towards rectifying that.
Europe’s national teams agree. They want more games that matter. According to UEFA, the decision to increase the number of teams each group follows a consultation where the national teams wanted to reduce their number of friendly matches.
By increasing the number of teams from three per group to four per group, the Nations League increases the number of matches played, but it also devalues the importance of each match. There will be plenty of ‘dead rubber’ matches late on in the group stages where neither team has anything to play for. These games will be as uncompetitive as regular friendly matches, and at least with friendlies, teams can choose their opponents.
As seen with pretty much every competition run by FIFA or UEFA, it seems nobody in charge of global soccer has heard of the expression “you can have too much of a good thing.”
The reason for the change was partly because friendly matches are unpopular, but the change seems to have missed the point about why friendly games are unpopular, and given that the Nations League is essentially something that fills up international breaks until the next round of qualifiers for the European Championship or World Cup starts, would it be the end of the world if UEFA just took an international break off to let players recover after a major tournament rather than adding more games to an ever-expanding international schedule?
The Nations League still has a long way to go before the majority of fans see it as a real competition, but by adding more games to its format, it risks reversing its early successes as more Nations League games will once again become meaningless friendly matches.
The draw for the 2020-21 Nations League will take place on 3 March 2020 in Amsterdam.