The Nations League. It sounds like something founded by Woodrow Wilson in an effort to achieve sustainable peace in Europe.
The format boasts a level of complexity such that the diagrams provided by UEFA, which aim to illustrate the various stages of the tournament, resemble something akin to a game of snakes and ladders.
The UEFA Nations League may, however, be the ticket out of the darkness in which Irish football has resided ever since the humbling defeat to Denmark last November.
There’s a collective air of toxicity surrounding the Irish set-up at the moment, following the various goings on of the last few months. Kevin Kilbane spoke this week of how in his experience such bad feeling can linger from one campaign to the next. Perhaps a change in the usual international routine is exactly what the Republic of Ireland require.
It may also, despite being a UEFA brain child, be a good idea and a positive development for international football.
Martin O’Neill summed up the general level of anticipation surrounding the autumn competition when he referred to it an ‘an interesting one’ with all the interest a man might show to his dog’s dirt while scooping it into a poo bag.
Despite its undeniably eye-bleeding intricacies, however, the UEFA Nations League may provide a worthwhile reason to get excited about international football again.
So, what’s changed?
Traditionally, qualification for Euro 2020 would have begun in September this year and lasted the guts of 13 months. Under these changes however, traditional qualification has been shortened and pushed back, and will now take place between March and September 2019.
The UEFA Nations League will be held prior to traditional qualification, across six match days in September, October and November 2018.
Why the change?
UEFA, similar to their FIFA brethren in this regard, feel that constantly shaking up and altering tournament formats is what sports administration is all about. This one, they’ve been cooking up for nearly eight years now.
The Nations League is their effort to rejuvenate international football. The thinking, not without basis, is that outside of tournaments and particularly in friendly matches, there is an inherent absence of meaning or importance to the international game.
Even in qualifying matches, it’s a cake walk for any half decent team and a series of perpetual maulings for poor teams, while the average sides generally experience a rough combination of the above, with the odd competitive exception.
The Nations League will attempt to make the contests fairer, pitting teams of similar ability against each other in order to add the feeling of competition currently missing from international friendlies and much of international qualifiers.
The introduction of the Nations League also means there will be less international friendlies. A welcome consequence, surely.
How does it work?
The 55 European nations have been divided into four leagues, League A, B, C and D. League A will feature the highest ranked teams. League D will feature the lowest ranked teams. The rankings are based on the UEFA coefficient rankings, as of October 2017.
Each League contains four groups. This is where it starts to get a little tricky. League A and B will contain four groups of three while League D will contain four groups of four. League C, will contain one group of three and three groups of four. Still with us?
The winners of each group will receive promotion while the bottom placed teams in each group will be relegated.
For example, the winner of each of the four groups in League C will be promoted to League B for the next Nations League, to be held in 2020. Likewise, the bottom placed team in each group in League B will be relegated to League C for the 2020 edition.
Teams who finish bottom of the groups in League D remain in that league for the 2020 tournament.
Each League A group winner will progress to the final four competition, which will comprise of a semi-final, third place play-off and final and will be held in June 2019.
The final four competition will be played out like a mini tournament, and will be hosted by one of the four participants.
What about the traditional qualifiers?
Taking place in a condensed period from March 2019 to November 2019, traditional qualifying will consist of ten groups, five groups of five and five groups of six. In a much-welcomed instance of keeping things simple, the top two teams in each group will qualify automatically for Euro 2020.
In March 2020, the sixteen Nations League group winners will contest a series of play-offs with the winners of each deciding the final four places for Euro 2020.
In any instance where the group winners have already qualified for the Euros through the traditional qualifying process, their play-off place is then passed to the next best-ranked team in their league, who has not already qualified.
What about Ireland?
Ireland have been placed in League B and Martin O’Neill’s team find themselves in Pot 2 for the draw, which is due to take place on Wednesday, January 24 at 11am Irish time.
The whole idea of the Nations League is that the groups consist of teams of a similar level so gone are the previous hopes of getting a lucky draw, as each possibility is generally similar to the next.
That said, a relatively favorable draw for Ireland might consist of Austria from Pot 1, over Wales, Russia and Slovakia, and perhaps Northern Ireland over Czech Republic, Turkey and Denmark (if Christian Eriksen is never seen at the Aviva again it will be too soon) from Pot 3.
That’s not to underplay the great work done by Northern Ireland over the last few years, of course. But the feeling is the Republic of Ireland will be more comfortable taking on their northern neighbors rather than pitting themselves against traditionally stronger outfits such as Czech Republic or Turkey.
Win their group and O’Neill’s team will have secured a back-up plan in the shape of the March 2020 play-offs should they fail to qualify through the traditional route.
Or, in a far more likely scenario, fail to win the group but slip into the play-offs as the next best ranked team in League B. A back door into the back door so to speak.
Give UEFA their due credit, they really are giving teams every possible opportunity to play in Euro 2020.
Is this a good move?
UEFA’s latest novel idea is far from straightforward. It does, however, offer competitive international football to look forward to in the second half of the year as well as the thus far all too seldom opportunity for Ireland to test themselves against opposition of similar level. It also reduces the amount of international friendlies supporters have to sit through.
At a time where it seemed there was little to get excited about in Irish football, fans can now look forward to O’Neill blooding his much-talked about new-look, younger team in competitive matches against the likes of Northern Ireland and Wales at the Aviva in autumn.
Despite the cumbersome format, UEFA’s Nations League might turn out to be a great alteration to international football, with less friendlies and one-sided drubbings and more competitive football with teams able to test themselves against similar opposition.
Woodrow Wilson once said: “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”
Maybe UEFA borrowed more than just a name from the former American president. Perhaps they borrowed some brains along with it.