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Why did UEFA create the Nations League?

The Nations League was created by UEFA in 2018 and has been a big success, although not necessarily for Europe’s ‘top’ national teams.

The Nations League was created by UEFA in 2018 and has been a big success, although not necessarily for Europe’s ‘top’ national teams.

The third edition of the UEFA Nations League is almost over, with Croatia, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands vying to join Portugal and France as winners of the recently-founded competition.

Those four nations topped the four groups in League A to qualify for the Nations League Final Four, to be played in the Dutch cities of Rotterdam and Enschede.

Before 2018, however, there was no Nations League and the international fixture calendar for European nations looked vastly different. Outwith major summer tournaments, they played World Cup and European Championship qualifiers interspersed among a whole host of friendly matches that, if we’re being totally honest, were hard for anyone to get too excited about.

Competitive games replace friendly matches

While they did give international coaches the opportunity to experiment somewhat and attempt to build for the future, the general feeling was that many players would look for an excuse to get out of playing them, while clubs were reluctant to risk their assets getting injured in essentially meaningless games.

The purpose of creating the Nations League was therefore to replace the majority of those matches and although the fixture calendar is busier than ever, competitive games are at least far preferable to non-competitive ones for most.

A more level playing field

The format of the competition, with countries drawn into groups within leagues which are based on their performance in the previous edition, means more frequent competitive games against teams of roughly the same level, which World Cup or European Championship qualification doesn’t always offer.

While beating San Marino 13-0 in 2006 was a fairly pointless exercise for Germany, it’s equally better for the continent’s smaller nations to play against teams they can compete against, maybe score the odd goal and even win a game or two. Gibraltar and Faroe Islands won promotion from the bottom tier of the Nations League in 2020-21, with both having really struggled in competitive matches previously.

An additional way to qualify for major tournaments

The Nations League also partly acts as qualification for both the World Cup and European Championships, with teams who perform well in the competition but don’t qualify for either of the summer tournaments via the usual qualifying procedure earning a second chance through a playoff.

As it’s the bigger countries who usually qualify via the traditional route, some still seem to be somewhat sceptical about the usefulness of the Nations League, especially since those nations are often the ones whose players are playing the most competitive games in European club competitions.

However, the tournament offers an additional way for second-tier nations and below to qualify for major tournaments, with the likes of Scotland, Slovakia and Hungary all taking their chance in playoffs in the first two editions.

So while the big guns from League A and the Final Four take centre stage at the end of each Nations League campaign, the benefits of its creation are most felt further down the chain.