The UEFA Nations League Explained

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The UEFA Nations League logo

Some may know that July’s edition of the FIFA World Rankings was cancelled, due to FIFA’s implementation of their brand-new ranking procedure. Well, two months on from June’s edition, the new formula made its debut this week. England’s fairy-tale run to the semis in Russia has seen them shoot up to sixth. It’s their highest position since they were fourth in March 2013, under Roy Hodgson. Croatia, England’s conquerors, are up to fourth, whilst the defending world champions’ group-stage exit has done Germany no favours at all. Joachim Löw’s side are at an all-time low – fifteenth place. But whilst it is pointless trying to pick apart the new ranking procedure, the format of UEFA’s shiny new relegation/promotion system is worth explaining. Here is how the UEFA 2018/19 Nations League will work.

Traditional European Championships and European World Cup qualifying is being kept, but heavily condensed down in time. Rather than lasting from the September of a tournament year until November of the following year, it will be over and done with in only one calendar year: the one before the tournament itself. So, qualification for Euro 2020 will begin and end in 2019. Half of Europe’s sides will be in groups of five teams, and half in groups of six. Teams will play double matchdays in late March, early June, early September, early October and mid-November. The traditional play-offs, at least for the upcoming 24-team European Championships, will be scrapped. Each of the ten groups’ top two teams will qualify directly for the finals. That means, given no country qualifies automatically for the tournament, only 20 of the 24 places at the finals would be filled. To decide the other four, the Nations League takes control.

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The Nations League will aid qualification to Euro 2020

The UEFA Nations League splits Europe into four league systems. League A has the continent’s twelve best sides, like France and, yes, England. League B has twelve regular tournament teams like Denmark and Wales. League C has fifteen fringe sides like Scotland and Montenegro. Finally, League D has Europe’s sixteen worst teams, including Gibraltar and San Marino. Each league is then split into four groups. League A and B’s groups each have three teams within them, whilst Nations League C has one group of three, plus three groups of four. League D has four straight groups of four. Now the magic happens…

England, as an example of how a three-team group works, have been drawn with Croatia and Spain. They will have double matchdays in September, October and November this year. This means there are six matchdays. But as they will play only two teams [home and away], they will play only four matches. Therefore, football associations drawn in three-team groups have the option to play friendly matches on free matchdays with other available European nations, or with countries in other continents also on an international break. By example, England’s free matchdays will see them host Switzerland in September and the USA in November. For a four-team group, like League D’s huge clash between Azerbaijan, the Faroe Islands, Kosovo and Malta, there are no free matchdays.

Tough Task: England have drawn Croatia and Spain in the Nations League. The Three Lions have a poor recent record against both nations…

Win a three-team group and you will be promoted to the higher league for the next edition of the Nations League, in 2020/21. Come second and you will stay-put. Lose a three-team group and you will be relegated to the league below. League A group winners cannot be promoted. For a four-team group in League D, there is of course no relegation. The most complicated League is C. Because only one group has three teams, relegation is dependent on other groups within the league. All League C group winners are promoted to League B. The three four-team groups’ losers will be relegated to League D, whilst the worst of the four third-placed sides will be relegated too. To avoid a disadvantage for the side in the three-team group, only matches against group winners and runners-up will count in deciding the worst third-placed side. So, the loser of the three-team group will be no more or less likely to be relegated than any of the four-team third-placers. It’s all very confusing, but the likes of ‘Sportbible’ will make it luxuriously easy to understand come November, don’t worry about that.

And for Leagues B, C and D that’s it. However, for League A group winners, there is a higher prize to play for. By the time Euro qualifying is well underway, in June 2019, the coveted Nations League Finals begin. This is a four-team knockout competition which will decide the winners of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. The four semi-finalists will of course be the four League A group winners. The overwhelming odds suggest Belgium will be one of those four teams – they’ve drawn Switzerland and Iceland. A December 2018 draw will decide which group winners play with others. The finals will be hosted entirely by one of the four nations from the 5th to the 9th of June. As this overlaps the June qualifiers for Euro 2020, each League A group winner will automatically be placed into one of the five-team qualifying groups, so their two free matchdays can be taken up in June with the Nations League Finals. The semi-finals, third-place play-off and final of the competition will adopt the FIFA World Cup match format. This, to recap, is a one-off match of 90 minutes, with an additional 30 minutes of extra-time, and penalty shoot-out, if necessary. The winner of the final will be crowned the first ever Nations League champions.

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The winners of the UEFA Nations League will be decided in June 2019, and will hold this brand new trophy aloft

By the time qualifying ends in November, and the twenty first- and second-placed sides have qualified for Euro 2020, the most confusing process yet occurs. A sixteen-team play-off system based on the 2018/19 Nations League standings will take place. In a perfect world, each league’s four group winners all fail to qualify for the Euros, and, because of their good performance in the Nations League, get a second chance. League A’s group winners basically replay the Nations League final, this time in March 2020, to decide a winner. The winner this time will not have won the Nations League, but will have qualified, thanks to the Nations League, to the European Championships of three months later. Leagues B, C and D will also hold play-offs for their group winners with each winner qualifying for the finals. Indeed, this means the likes of Malta or Kazakhstan will qualify for the Euros.

However, in reality group winners from League A are almost certain to have qualified for the finals through their five-team qualifying groups. In fact, runners-up will probably have qualified too. There may be only, say, one of the twelve League A sides that failed to qualify. Let’s say, for the purposes of explanation, that this ends up being Poland. If only Poland are available to participate in what is supposed to be a four-team League A play-off for one spot at the finals, the ‘2018/19 UEFA Nations League Rankings’ will come into prominence. This is a ranking system of all European sides combined, based on how they did in the Nations League. The worst side in all of League B would be followed in the rankings by League C’s best side. If only Poland from League A are available, then the three next-best sides are pushed up to the League A play-offs. If we know that only Poland from League A failed to qualify, then we know the other eleven League A sides leave only nine slots left. We shall say, again by example, these nine are comprised of eight from League B, and Scotland from League C. Now, eleven of twelve League A sides have qualified, eight of twelve League B sides have qualified, and Scotland from C have made it too.

Poland will be joined in the League A play-offs by the three highest ranked [Nations League rankings, not FIFA] League B sides that failed to qualify conventionally. These four, despite not all having competed in League A, will compete in the League A play-offs for one place at the finals. Eight qualifiers plus three play-off sides leaves one side left from League B. This side failed to qualify for the Euros and also did badly in the Nations League. They then participate in the League B play-offs as the only true League B side. They will be joined by League C sides that aren’t Scotland. This messy, but fair, process, will continue all the way to Group D. In the end, there will be a League A, a League B, a League C and a League D side that make the tournament by winning one of these four four-team pathways. These four ‘second-chance’ qualified sides could end up being comprised of exactly that, or in reality be two League B sides and one each from C and D.

For the purposes of the explanation, we will assume Poland are beaten by League B side Wales in the League A play-offs, and the League B play-offs are won by a true League B side – the Czech Republic. Norway makes the European Championships through the League C play-offs, and the tournament welcomes Belarus for the first time – here via the League D play-offs. So, Wales, the Czech Republic, Norway and Belarus all failed to finish first or second in their qualifying groups, but decent Nations League results help them qualify. Poland, thanks to poor performances in the Nations League, qualifying and Play-offs, do not qualify. Twenty plus four equals twenty-four. We have all the places decided…at last.

Take a moment to read that over again and again until you understand. UEFA are forcing us to pull out our calculators and formula sheets. But we don’t mind. What could be more fun than a league system in international football, anyway? Christmas has come early this year; who says supporting your country can’t be interesting?

The 2018/19 UEFA Nations League draw in full

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