So you’re quietly sitting at your desk on Wednesday morning – thinking you have accidentally forgotten breakfast and we might as well skip straight to biscuits – and it is announced that the leagues (not groups – this is important) for the UEFA Nations League have been confirmed. Sorry, what? What the f*** is the UEFA Nations League and why did nobody tell us about it? So after some investigation, we can answer our (and presumably your) questions…
Have they literally just made this up?
Well, apparently not. It seems that this was approved by the UEFA Executive Committee back in December 2014. We have barely heard a whisper since, so if we did notice the official announcement, we had collectively forgotten all about it until Wednesday morning. At the same meeting in December 2014, UEFA sought ‘clarification regarding the current situation of Crimean clubs’, so we are now half-expecting UEFA to suddenly announce that Crimean clubs will enter the Championship play-offs from next season. We could barely be more caught off guard than we have been by the UEFA Nations League.
So what are these leagues?
— Bryan Swanson (@skysports_bryan) October 11, 2017
Right, so are England now going to play those other 11 teams?
No. Because that would be ridiculous. England will play two teams on a home-and-away basis between September and November 2018, as each league will be divided into four groups of three or four teams, with the 12-strong League A being divided into four groups of three teams. League B will be similarly divided. League C will contain three groups of four and one of three, while League D will have four groups of four teams. So England, for example, may be drawn against Belgium and Croatia, and will play those teams home and away in the autumn of 2018.
So is this instead of Euro 2020 qualifying?
No, that would be too simple. Euro 2020 qualifying is set back until March 2019 and will end in November 2019. But the Nations League will a) decide the seedings for the Euro 2020 qualifiers and b) provide another route to the tournament, with four non-qualifiers being given another chance according to their Nations League rankings. We will come back to this later, but the important information is that these games are instead of friendlies rather than instead of qualifying.
So we know the Leagues; when will we know the groups?
After January 24, 2018, when a lavish ceremony will presumably be held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Because what football needs more than anything are more lavish ceremonies and more interminable draws.
So how do you become UEFA Nations League champions?
You can only become UEFA Nations League champions if you are in League A, of course. And you win the UEFA Nations League by topping your group and thus qualifying for the mini-tournament between four teams in June 2019. Two semi-finals, a third-placed play-off and the final will take place at stadiums in one of the participating countries. The winner will become the UEFA Nations League champions, which does not sound quite so sexy as being actual European champions, but it might catch on.
Is there promotion and relegation?
Yes, and this is where the excitement may come. Four countries will be promoted/relegated, using pretty basic top of the group/bottom of the group criteria, apart from relegation from the awkwardly numbered League C, which we won’t worry about until Scotland are in danger of joining Gibraltar in League D.
Right, so that all sounds fair enough, if a little pointless. What was that stuff about Euro 2020 qualifying?
Only 20 of the participating 24 teams (yes, 24, yes it is ridiculous) in Euro 2020 will be decided by the usual qualifying process, with the top two teams in each of ten groups qualifying for the tournament, which is being held across Europe.
So the final four places at Euro 2020 will come from each of the four leagues, with play-offs (of course) to decide those four teams. Remember the groups? Well, the winners of each group (if they have not already qualified for Euro 2020) will play one-off semi-finals against each other (at the home of highest-ranked team) before a play-off final to be held at a pre-determined venue in March 2020.
If the winners of the groups have already qualified for Euro 2020 (as is likely in League A), they will keep going down the groups until they find enough teams for the play-offs. And if they cannot find enough teams for the play-offs from a certain league (as is likely in League A), then they will go and grab some teams from a lower league to make up the numbers.
This means that the usual Euro 2020 qualifying competition will actually only irretrievably knock out 19 countries; 20 will qualify as group winners or runners-up and another 16 will go through to those UEFA Nations League play-offs.
It does sound like it might be designed to ensure that no big country ever misses out on a European Championship place again…
It does, doesn’t it? Though we expect the Netherlands to manage somehow.
But wait a minute, does it also mean that a League D side is guaranteed a place at Euro 2020?
It does indeed. Which means one of Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus etc will get a place. Which is making us think that it might be worth Scotland getting relegated to give themselves a chance of making it to Euro 2024, by which time they might have got a bit taller.
Still confused? Here…
The UEFA Nations League: explainedhttps://t.co/UrNH0E7kTR
— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) October 11, 2017
Is that a joke?
Yes. Yes, it is.