England are done for 2018. Never have they played more matches in a calendar year than the 17 of this year. 2018 will go down in history as the year England fans returned to support their long-despondent national team. It’s a week and a bit since their dramatic victory over Croatia took them to the Nations League finals, but it’s a week and a bit since every other country’s Nations League campaign ended too. Let’s review how the inaugural tournament went.
Many people expected the competition to be uncompetitive, to do a poor job of replacing friendlies. This was certainly not the case. England’s, Croatia’s and Spain’s group was arguably the most competitive from any league. Barring Spain’s rout of Croatia [6-0] on matchday two, the scores were all incredibly tight at 0-0, 3-2 twice and 2-1 twice. In addition, the Netherlands came from two down to steal a place at the finals with a late 2-2 draw in Germany.
Another reason why this was a success is its many unpredictable narratives. Minnows Gibraltar won twice, against Armenia and Liechtenstein, scoring five goals when many felt they wouldn’t manage any. Andorra had a similar story, drawing every one of their home games, including sizeable ties with Georgia and Latvia. Slovenia were incapable of winning a group containing Bulgaria, Cyprus and Norway. In fact, they finished bottom and were relegated to the fourth tier, where the likes of San Marino and Malta await next time out.
Finland won their first four games, helping them earn a League B berth for 2020. Few would have expected that when they were drawn with Hungary and Greece. Scotland held their own to manage the same feat, albeit against Israel and Albania, whilst Sweden and Russia’s identical points-total saw the Swedes through on their head-to-head record. And in Nations League A, heavyweights Croatia and Germany were relegated from very tough groups. That equates them with the likes of Scotland and Finland as Nations League B teams – consider that.
The best story, however, was Switzerland’s. They needed to beat Belgium by at least two goals in their final match to win the group. The World Cup semi-finalists raced into a 2-0 lead over an inferior Switzerland, but then something crazy happened. In the last hour of play, Switzerland scored five unanswered goals to condemn Belgium to second place. The Swiss topped the group.
Teams treated this competition very seriously and played their strongest elevens in the biggest games. England, for example, played almost a second-string team against the USA, saving the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling for that all-important tie with Croatia this month, The guaranteed Euro 2020 play-off places meant lesser sides had something to play for beyond promotion, while a chance to win June’s Nations League Finals was surely the motivation for League A’s elite sides. Sure enough, France, Spain and Belgium reacted poorly to finishing second – this was a competition countries wanted to win.
CONCACAF, the governing body for football in North America, are staging their own version of the Nations League next year, although qualification for that is already underway. However, it’s the inclusivity, where all European nations compete, that has made the UEFA Nations League feel so enjoyable, so fair, so intense.
This brand new initiative isn’t perfect though. UEFA have always weighted head-to-head records as more important than goal difference. That must change. In addition, there seemed to be inconsistency with the UEFA Nations League ball. Some countries used the specially-made UEFA balls, others didn’t. The play-offs for Euro 2020 provide the most confusing part of the Nations League. Deciding which teams get a spot by linking the Nations League with Euro qualifying is certainly not simple, and that too could have been made simpler. On balance though, this has been a success. It has given football fans some international football to get excited about that doesn’t happen in June or July. Livening up the FIFA International Match Calendar was a necessary reform. Here it is in action.
The Nations League was competitive, yet unpredictable. Sound familiar? Indeed, the World Cup was exactly the same. You would have got very good odds on Switzerland, England, Portugal and the Dutch making the Nations League Finals. What a huge opportunity that is for England to end [what will be] 53 years of hurt. But the Nations League isn’t only appreciated in England – this has been a widely well-received tournament. It’s been a little while since UEFA gave us some news as good as this.