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The UEFA Nations League was mad, wonderful, ridiculous and captivating

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UEFA introduced it as a way to spice up friendly matches and mediocre qualifying games in between tournament seasons. Yet the concept sounded crazy. Winning the damn thing sounded far too complicated, and what where the permutations for Euro qualification again? It’s fair to say that we hardly embraced the UEFA Nations League with excitement.

Yet on balance this ridiculous competition has become an unlikely success. We could see this after Portugal defeated the Netherlands in the first Final in the fledgling tournament’s history. International matches are being fought with a ferocity and level of intensity normally saved for the “proper” tournaments. Every result seems to count which is great news for fans.

But what has made the UEFA Nations league such an unlikely hit?

Leagues, seedings, relegations and promotions

The tournament’s group phase saw European nations grouped with teams of similar standing and ranking in the coefficients system. This approach has leveled the playing field massively for all the teams competing.

Once drawn, this placed teams like Andorra with Kosovo, and Bulgaria with Finland. All teams of a very similar stature. And in the very top group of teams we saw leagues containing some European heavyweights pitted against one another.

England’s own group with Spain and Croatia is, on paper, a mouth-watering prospect. And the group proved to be incredibly competitive, with England just finishing top of a topsy-turvy, anyone-could-win setup.

My personal highlights of the groups were mainly in the lower leagues. Teams here could realistically chalk up some rare wins, injecting every encounter with an added edge. It became competitive, it meant something. And it was great fun!

An antidote to the dull, predictable Qualifiers

The Nations League was never intended as a replacement for the European Championships Qualififers. But it has definitely provided some unpredictability in an otherwise entirely predictable setup.

Euro qualifiers have become so easy to predict these days. You instantly know the favourites and who will be the whipping boys once UEFA make the draw.

Try telling England’s Harry Kane that the UEFA Nations League means nothing…

This really isn’t fun to watch, and rarely fun to play in for the teams involved. If you’re the Macedonian goalkeeper lining up against the attacking firepower of, say, France, where’s the hope? Likewise, what if you’re a European heavyweight drawn in a mediocre group and qualify at a canter – as England regularly do? How is that any kind of preparation for tournament football?

The Nations League has thrown up some fantastic clashes within all tiers of European football. There really hasn’t been a lot negative to say about the setup.

Fans and players love international football again, what’s not to love about that?

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020