While first seen as a way for UEFA to capitalize on international breaks, the Nations League has evolved into a solid competition — especially for smaller European nations.
In 2018, UEFA introduced a new format to international football, the Nations League. It was to replace the needless friendlies we so frequently saw throughout the domestic season with competitive matches for countries to participate in. The decision was met with a whole load of intrigue combined with the expected exponential doubt.
UEFA is going to UEFA after all, and upon introducing this seemingly good idea, they decided to make it the most confusing thing for fans to comprehend. Now, five years later, the competition is in full flow as a regular feature of the international game, but it still seems to be met with some form of skepticism.
International football in Europe outside of the major tournaments, whether it’s the World Cup or European Championships, is often met with a grumble from the majority. UEFA launched this tournament to combat the dwindling interest outside of these competitions, yet the jury still seems to be out, as many struggle to get on board with the idea and regard the Nations League as a glorified set of friendlies.
I’m here to tell all of you who think this that you’re wrong. Or you will be wrong. At some point, you will all be wrong. The Nations League deserves more than what it’s getting. It’s one of the few good ideas that UEFA has had, and introducing it adds another level of competition to the international football scene, which is much needed.
The mindset that the Nations League games are just exhibitions with fancy competition branding is entirely based on an arrogant and entitled mindset among fans who support major nations, such as England. I’ve read a lot of opinions on international friendlies versus the Nations League, and one recurring point is centered around the fact that teams can no longer experiment with their squads.
It’s ignorance to the fact that the likes of Estonia, Latvia, San Marino, and more don’t care about this. They want the chance to taste some form of glory when representing their country instead of turning up to play one of the top five teams in Europe only to be battered and embarrassed every single international break.
What Nations League critics are blind to is the chance it gives smaller nations where international football isn’t looked at as an afterthought, but instead integral to their national identity, a chance to mean something. It’s a chance for them to matter, whether they win or lose. The promotion and relegation system of this tournament means smaller nations have something to fight for away from just trying to “cause an upset.”
Yes, I am fully aware that the three winners of the tournament so far have been three big sides in Spain, France, and Portugal, but do not let that overshadow the desire of nations to be promoted and avoid relegation and for them to see that as a success. Take England, for example, who have been relegated from their league in what should be classed as a huge failure.
Don’t get me wrong, the Nations League is not the perfect idea. It’s confusing, and it’s yet to fully take off despite being launched five years ago. I urge UEFA to stick with it, though, and be patient. It takes time for a systemic change like this to fully embed itself into football folklore and become something that people respect.
The tournament will never reach the heights of the World Cup or the European Championships, but that shouldn’t support the reasoning to scrap it. It’s inevitable that any new tournament or concept will be benchmarked against two of the biggest competitions in football. This is rather unfair, though, as it casts a shadow over what is a great intention.
While the winners of this tournament — three of the major players in the game — have not shown the same love for winning it as if they’d won a traditional major trophy, there’s scope for that excitement and pride to grow. I’m urging fans to stick with it, to support and trust the process, and to think of the little guys who want to actually matter to the game and not sit as firing fodder for the top dogs of the international game in meaningless matches. The Nations League will get the gravitas it deserves, it’s only a matter of time.