Football's new complex tourney kicks off tomorrow
Football's newest competition kicks off this week in Europe with few knowing all the details of a complex format. The UEFA Nations League certainly will get off to a good start: Germany host World Cup champions France tomorrow, England face Spain on Saturday, Portugal play Italy on Monday and Spain take on Croatia next Tuesday.
In simple terms, the competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation, and produces a champion at a mini-tournament next June.
It will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.
Because of the Nations League, traditional qualifying for Euro 2020 will start in March instead of the usual September following a World Cup.
UEFA believes all its member federations are getting something they like. Top-ranked nations want to play each other; the middle teams want winnable competitive games; low-ranked nations want hope of reaching major tournaments.
The North American region now has its own version, while UEFA also designed a global version for about 220 teams which FIFA already has plans to adopt.
WHAT IS THE NATIONS LEAGUE?
A group stage involving 55 teams playing in four levels Leagues A, B, C and D from this week until November; a Final Four mini-tournament in June 2019 for the group winners of League A; play-offs in March 2020 in all four tiers to fill the last four Euro 2020 qualifying places.
The last detail is the incentive for European football's smaller teams.
At least one League D team possibly Azerbaijan, Belarus or Luxembourg, for instance will qualify for Euro 2020.
Few people seemed to like international friendlies which "really don't interest anybody," then-UEFA president Michel Platini said when launching the Nations League in March 2014.
Plus, the biennial format should be good for business.
"These matches are relevant for every single market so you optimise in each market," UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein has said.
UEFA hopes promotion of group winners and relegation of last-place teams up and down the four Nations League tiers will keep it dynamic.
Groups of three or four teams play home and away on the usual national-team match dates protected by FIFA.
Teams in the top-two tiers League A and B, each with four groups of three nations still have dates free for friendlies against teams like Brazil and Argentina. Lower-ranked teams are all booked up in the four-team groups of Leagues C and D.
The four group winners from League A advance to a Final Four to decide the Nations League champions.
The semi-finals, third-place game and final will be played in one nation from June 5-9. The hosts will be the winners of the Italy-Poland-Portugal group.