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A Guide to the UEFA Nations League

The UEFA Nations League is the third full national football competition for UEFA members, after the World Cup and the UEFA Euro Cup. The UEFA Nations League was formed in 2018 by the UEFA Board, in a statement they said:

“UEFA and its associations wanted more sporting meaning in national team football, with associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams.”

The 54 national teams in UEFA are all eligible to play in the competition, replacing all the European and international friendlies that would have been played in their place. This does not mean that there are no more international friendlies, as there are still be pre-tournament warmup friendlies and blank dates when teams could expect to play friendlies.

The plan was to have a European Cup competition once every two years, with the teams that won or performed well during the League stage getting a chance to qualify for the World Cup or UEFA Euro Cup (in the event that they failed to qualify during the qualification rounds of either tournament).

Initial Format of the UEFA Nations League

The League features all 54 national teams in Europe, divided into four leagues, A, B, C and D. League A and B would consist of 12 teams each, with group C featuring 14 and league D 16.

The national teams were placed into the groups based on their coefficients, a ranking that is made up all national teams by how they perform in European and International football competitions. The Group A would include the top 12 teams, the B the next 12 and so on.
The teams would form smaller groups of three and four in each league, with the group members playing members from their groups twice, in a robin-round format. This means that the teams would each play four to six games in the group stage.

At the conclusion of the league games, the winners of leagues B, C and D could be promoted to the next leagues up, with the losers of the leagues A, B and C being relegated to the leagues below.

The top four finishes in the four different groups in the league A progressed to a semi-final playoff, followed by a final to determine who would be the outright winner. The inaugural tournament was held in 2018, right after the World Cup, and it was won by Portugal.

Current Format

Following the pandemic, the 2020-2021 season was restructured. Still following the League principles with the strongest teams getting into the league A and the lowest ranking in league D, the new format features 16 teams in the leagues A, B and C, with 7 in league D.

In the top league, the four winners of the groups proceed to the playoffs, where there are two semi-finals, one third place fixture and a final, which decides the winner of the tournament.

Promotion and relegation between the leagues works in the following way: the four losers of their respective groups in the leagues A and B are relegated to leagues B and C, with the four winners of the groups in those leagues securing promotion. The league D only has two groups, the winners of both are promoted, and the losers of the four league C groups play in a playoff to decide which teams will be relegated to league D.

The relegation playoffs are played in two ties, the first ranked fourth team that finished last in its group in C plays the fourth ranked team, with the second ranked playing the third. The two teams that score more on aggregate stay in the league C, and the other two are relegated. In case of a tie, the team that scored more away goals wins. In case of a tie, the teams have to play extra time and then penalties.

The away goal rule will apply for the 2020-21 league, but in the 2022-23 season, it has been announced that the rule will be dropped.

Qualifying For the UEFA European Championship

The UEFA Nations League gives teams another way of qualifying for the UEFA European Championships. The teams playing in the European Championship are determined by a qualifying round, with 10 groups, five groups of five and five groups of six teams. The winners and runners up of each group qualifies to the competition proper, but there are four places left. These places are allocated to the group winners in the UEFA Nations league, with the four strongest ranking teams after the 20 who have already qualified securing their places in the European tournament.

Qualifying for the World Cup

The UEFA Nations League can also give teams the opportunity to secure berths to the World Cup, but in a less direct way than the places given in the European Championships.

Europe has 13 berths to the World Cup, and ten of these are decided in a robin-round group stage, where there are ten teams playing in five groups of five and five groups of six. The ten group winners secure a place in the World Cup competition proper, with the ten runners up participating in a playoff round.

The two top ranking UEFA Nations League group winners who did not win a berth into the World Cup competition proper or the qualifying playoffs round, will be given a place in the playoffs.

The twelve teams are seeded into three groups, that play a semi-finals and finals, to decide which teams will secure the final three places to the World Cup.

This year, the Austrian national team and the Czech Republic were given those two places, being winners of the league B’s groups B1 and B2 respectively.

Criticism and Support

The UEFA Nations league initially met with a lot of criticism from players, club management staff and football fans. It was seen as a throwaway competition that was not going to interest fans due to its lack of history, and an annoyance to club managers who complained that there would be too many competitive matches in a season, tiring their players out.

The first competition failed to attract most fans’ attention, and received low viewership numbers. With critics saying that the league would only allow weaker teams to qualify in competitions ahead of higher ranking teams that would make the World Cup and the European Championships more competitive.

However, the matches played in the UEFA Nations league received applause for very high level matches, with teams hungry for goals and putting in strong performances.

The 2020-2021 UEFA Nations League finals saw its audience grow by 30% compared to the first competition. The four team playoff at the end was watched by 130 million people.

To add to that, the Nations League brought in more than 230 million global social media interactions, with the finals playoffs creating over 353 million impressions. Cross-platform engagements more than doubled from the 9.4 million for the 2018/19 tournament to 19.2 million for the latest edition. Posted video views also went up from 38 million to 78 million.

The UEFA Nations League is picking up in popularity, and when fans of international football start seeing the benefits in the league that promotes goal scoring exciting football, it is bound to catch on.

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