So what the f*** is the UEFA Nations League?

Matt Stead

The UEFA Nations League is almost upon us, and yet still no-one has a sodding clue what it actually is, what it’s actually there for and whether they should actually be bothered.


So, yeah…what the f*** is the UEFA Nations League?
UEFA themselves describe it thus: ‘A new national team competition that replaces friendlies with competitive matches, allowing nations to play against equally ranked teams.’

The BBC say it is ‘a new international tournament in which European nations compete in a league format’.

Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge, tell us it is ‘a biennial international association football competition to be contested by the senior men’s national teams of the member associations of UEFA, the sport’s European governing body’.

But in layman’s terms, the UEFA Nations League is basically an attempt to reduce the amount of meaningless friendlies, and increase and improve the standard and competitiveness of international football. And, if UEFA was completely honest and transparent, it is also to ensure Italy and the Netherlands do not miss out on a major tournament again.


How does it even bloody work?
It’s a numbers game, basically. There are 55 UEFA-recognised nations. They are divided into four leagues based on their coefficient rankings, with the best sides placed in League A, the worst in League D and the rest somewhere in between. Those four leagues are then split into four groups containing three or four teams each. Groups A and B have four groups of three teams, Group C have one group of three and three groups of four, and Group D has four groups of four.

The idea is that all teams are evenly matched, instead of France facing Luxembourg or something equally silly and pointless.

Things are far easier and always more fun to explain with pictures, so here you go:


When is the first UEFA Nations League game?
Thursday, when Kazakhstan and Georgia (4pm) kick off this glorious new era of international football.

You do not have to wait long for a few examples as to why this all might be worth it, mind. If Gibraltar v Macedonia (Group D4, 8.45pm) or Latvia v Andorra (Group D2, 8:45pm) does not leave your fancy sufficiently tickled, Germany v France (Group A1, 8.45pm) ought to do it.


When does it all end?
Bit morbid. If you’re talking about the Nations League, the group phase ends in November, when all sides have played one another home and away. Then it all hots up in June, as each of the group winners from League A face each other in the semi-finals. The winners of those two semi-finals will compete in the final on June 9, 2019, to decide the first-ever UEFA Nations League winner.

The UEFA Nations League final will always take place in an odd-numbered year, just to fill that gap left by the World Cup and European Championships, and games will be hosted by one of the four semi-finalists.


Is there a third-place play-off?
Isn’t there always?


What’s this about promotion and relegation?
See, UEFA are quite keen to push the fact that this competition has been developed and inspired by tournaments at club level. So they have adopted the best element of a league system in that countries will be promoted or relegated based on performance. Teams that finish bottom of their respective groups will be relegated to the league below, replaced by countries who finish top of their groups.

So if England, Iceland, Poland and the Netherlands finish bottom of their groups in League A, they will be relegated to League B for the next cycle of games in 2020. And if Slovakia, Russia, Austria and Wales win their groups in League B, they will be promoted to League A. Nice and simple.


And European Championship qualification?
With the European Championships expanding to 24 teams for Euro 2020, qualification has, in UEFA’s own words, been ‘streamlined’. It begins in March 2019, and there will be the usual ten groups, five containing five teams and five containing six. The top two in each group will qualify automatically for Euro 2020, leaving four spots to be filled.

Which is where the Nations League comes in. The last four places will be decided by play-offs in March 2020, and each Nations League will provide one of the qualifying countries.

Each league has four spots to allocate for the play-offs, with group winners given first priority. If they have already qualified for Euro 2020 through the usual means (as is likely in League A), their place will be handed down to the next highest-ranked team from their league (so not necessarily their group) which has not already qualified. 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.

The four teams will then play two one-off semi-finals and one final in March 2020 to decide the qualifier from each league.

The Nations League therefore gives every team in League D an alternative route to the European Championships – congratulations to Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, the Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino or Gibraltar – and pretty much provides a safety net for the bigger, under-performing countries.


So is there any European Championship crossover?
Nope. The timeline is pretty simple:

September-November 2018: UEFA Nations League group stage
March 2019: European Championship qualifiers start
June 2019: UEFA Nations League finals
November 2019: European Championship qualifiers end
March 2020: Euro 2020 qualification play-offs
June-July 2020: Euro 2020 finals


Should Scotland get themselves relegated to League D then?


Matt Stead