England to Return in September as Nations League Is Retained

The Premier League is back. Football in England’s top division has a cram-packed schedule between now and the end of the most turbulent season on record. What about international football? That will have to wait its turn, like it so often does.

Nevertheless, the latest UEFA Executive Committee meeting took place on 17 June and decided the fate of a number of competitions that eager international supporters had been worried about losing altogether. Make no mistake, UEFA had been panicking themselves. Global pandemics aren’t famous for providing certainty.

During this meeting, the new dates for Euro 2020, albeit a tournament that will now take place in 2021, were announced. All 12 host cities remain so, and every single fixture will be played where it was originally scheduled to take place. England will play all three of their group games under the arch at Wembley. Their opener will be the latest chapter in the now established rivalry between themselves and Croatia. That will kick off at 14:00 on Sunday 13 June.

Two evening matches — both 20:00 kick-offs — then follow, with England first facing whoever wins the play-offs between Israel, Norway, Scotland and Serbia, on Friday 18 June. The final of three group-stage games will pit the Three Lions against the Czech Republic on Tuesday 22. Gareth Southgate’s young team handed the Czechs their heaviest ever defeat in their first qualifier en route to the Euros, Raheem Sterling netting a first England hat-trick. But the central Europeans then did their homework and ended the Three Lions’ 43-game unbeaten run in World Cup and Euro qualifiers, with a 2-1 victory in Prague. None of these fixtures will be a stroll in the park come next summer.

More immediate news that will impact England is that the second ever Nations League campaign, due to begin this autumn, will be kept. The September international break was thought to be in danger, considering players will get just a fortnight’s break between the end of this season and the start of next. But it remains in UEFA’s plans. It will interrupt the new club season after just two weeks’ worth of fixtures. Still, it’s a while since international football felt like a priority. In this instance, it seems it has been treated as one.

Trips to Iceland — where revenge for the Euro 2016 nightmare in Nice will be seen as a must by Harry Kane, Dele Alli and others — and Denmark are England’s September fixtures. Then, the October and November international breaks will become triple-headers. First leg ties of the remaining Euro 2020 play-offs will take place in October, before qualification is finally completed with the second legs in November. England, of course, aren’t involved. They qualified at a canter by winning their qualifying group.

October will see home Nations League matches against Belgium and Denmark, while Southgate’s side complete the group phase with a visit to Brussels and a Wembley match against Iceland in November. For the two free matchdays in October and November, when the play-offs will take place, expect to see the Three Lions organise two friendlies.

Qualification for the winter World Cup of 2022 will begin in March 2021. It will then be completed in either June (before the European Championships), September, October and November; or it will miss out June entirely and instead some of these windows will become triple-header breaks to allow teams in six-team groups to play all their ten qualifiers in one calendar year. The Nations League Finals, for the four best League A sides, will take place in either September or October in 2021. This means finalists will be placed in five-team qualifying groups for the World Cup, freeing up the space and time for them to take part in the finals.

England were finalists last time round, winning a meaty group that contained both Spain and Croatia, before falling to the Netherlands in extra-time of a disappointing semi-final last June.

If there aren’t any scheduled 2022 World Cup qualifiers in early June 2021, then teams will likely book friendlies to prepare them for the European Championships, as usually happens ahead of a major tournament.

It’s all very confusing. But, subject to FIFA validation, UEFA seem to have pulled it out the bag here. Their plan is not perfect — football post-coronavirus was never going to be — but it seems sensible and it will work. The only football that will be lost in time forever is the international friendlies that were due to take place in late March — against Italy and Denmark for England — and in early June ­­— versus Austria and Romania. The Executive Committee has done some commendable damage limitation here.

International football won’t return to our screens and stadiums until September, ten months since it last appeared. When it does arrive though, it will come thick and fast until the beginning of winter. England now know their destiny. Re-plotting and re-planning can now finally begin.

All Photos: Getty Images

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