November 09, 2020

The UEFA Nations League and its Link to the World Cup 2022

In 2018, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) introduced a new tournament, the Nations League, "to improve the quality of national team football". So far, the results have been promising.

Indeed, even in COVID-times, the Nations League has produced some exciting football. Cristiano Ronaldo recently scored his 100th goal for Portugal, and 101st too, with a superb double against Sweden. The same day (September 8, 2020), as Les Bleus defeated Croatia 4-2, Eduardo Camavinga, aged 17 years and nine months, became France's youngest international in ninety-six years. Meanwhile, Poland saw themselves ahead of traditional powerhouses Italy and the Netherlands. Spain led Germany in their group despite losing to Ukraine. While England, third in their group, found themselves in danger of missing out on the finals.

As exciting as the games have been, many still don't understand the new format or how the tournament links to the FIFA World Cup…

The UEFA Nations League Explained

The biennial tournament came into being because UEFA and its associations, coaches, players and supporters felt that traditional friendly matches were not providing adequate competition for national teams. The new tournament is intended to improve the quality and standing of national team football.

The 2018 inaugural edition saw Portugal beat the Netherlands in the final to be crowned UEFA Nations League Champions. The 2020 edition is currently underway and remains more or less the same as the 2018 tournament, though there have been changes in the number of teams in each league. 

The competition incorporates 55 European teams divided into four leagues (A, B, C and D), according to their rankings after the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League. In 2020, Leagues A, B and C have 16 teams each divided into four groups of four teams, while League D, featuring the least-ranked sides, has only seven teams divided into two groups or three or four teams. 

In each group, each team plays the others in a home and away format. The winners from each group in League A qualify for the Nations League Finals - which incorporate the Semi-Finals, a 3rd and 4th place decider, and the Final. The winners from each of the groups in Leagues B, C and D, will gain promotion to the higher leagues in the next edition, while the teams who finish at the bottom of their groups will be relegated. Four teams relegated from Leagues A and B will drop down to groups B and C, respectively. However, in League C, a playoff between the bottom four, determines which two teams will be relegated to the two groups in League D. 

In addition, the two top-ranked group winners have the opportunity to enter the playoffs for the next World Cup...

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualification

There is no direct route to the World Cup from the Nations League, but it does offer two playoff slots. 

In addition, the Nations League will play a significant role in determining the seedings for the World Cup qualifying draw (the 2022 draw to be held on November 29, 2020). The seedings for the draw will be based on the FIFA world rankings at the end of the Nations League group stage. A poor performance in the tournament will result in teams losing valuable ranking points and even the heavyweights such as Italy, Germany and the Netherlands - currently placed 12, 14 and 15 in world rankings - run the risk of being unseeded for the qualifiers. 

How It Works

In the World Cup qualifiers, the 55 European teams are drawn into 10 groups - five groups comprising five teams each and five groups having six. All ten group winners will directly qualify for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, while the runners up from each of the 10 groups will go into the playoffs. 

The two top-ranked group winners from Nations League - based on their overall Nations League rankings - will join the 10 runners up going into the playoffs where they will undertake two rounds of knockout matches. The important point is that only the Nations League group winners who did not directly qualify through the World Cup qualifiers or reach the playoffs will be considered. 

As an example, let's assume that Germany came on top in their group in Nations League but failed to finish in the top two in their World Cup qualifying group. They are still likely to get another chance to play in the playoffs depending on their overall ranking. But, if they finish second in their group in the Nations League, they won't have a chance to go into the playoffs. That chance will go to two top-ranked group winners, from League A, B, C or D, who did not directly qualify or reach the playoffs. 

A slightly circuitous route, but it's a glimmer of hope for teams who do well in Nations League and an inspiration to win their respective groups.

Technically, the group winners of League D also have a chance to qualify for the playoffs. However, the chance is relatively low as there will be enough higher-ranked group winners in higher leagues who satisfy the criteria. 

So in truth, lower-ranked teams, who will have to play against other minnows, don't have much to be excited about besides the guaranteed solidarity funding. League D teams will get a fund of €750,000 with league winners - decided based on their overall rankings - getting double the amount. Meanwhile, League A teams get a fund of €2.25m, League B teams will get €1.5m, and League C countries will be richer by €1.125m.

Nations League 2020 So Far

To date, Poland has been impressive in League A, Group 1, also comprising Italy and Netherlands. The Poles lead with seven points from four matches. 

In Group 2, Belgium leads with nine points, ahead of Denmark and England who both are on seven. 

In Group 3, Portugal and world champions France both have 10 points each, but Ronaldo’s side is ahead on goal difference. Reigning Euro and Nations League champions Portugal have a young but strong team and have been impressive even in the absence of an injured Ronaldo. 

In Group 4, Spain is ahead on seven points although Germany and Ukraine are hot on their heels with six. 

Even though there are just two more rounds to go in the group phase, all the big teams still have a chance of qualifying for the finals to be held in October 2021. The finals were originally scheduled for June 2021, but the dates were changed after the rescheduling of Euro 2020 because of COVID-19. The Nations League relegation playoffs will be held in March 2022.

League AGroup 1Netherlands, Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland
Group 2England, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland
Group 3Portugal, France, Sweden, Croatia
Group 4Switzerland, Spain, Ukraine, Germany

In League B, Austria, Scotland, Russia and Wales lead their respective groups.

League BGroup 1Austria, Norway, Northern Ireland, Romania
Group 2Czech Republic, Scotland, Slovakia, Israel
Group 3Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Hungary
Group 4Wales, Finland, Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria

While in League C, Luxembourg, North Macedonia, Slovenia and Belarus are ahead at the moment.

League CGroup 1Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro
Group 2Armenia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Georgia
Group 3Moldova, Slovenia, Kosovo, Greece
Group 4Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Belarus, Albania

In League D, where seven lowest-ranked teams are divided into two groups, the Faroe Islands and Gibraltar have the advantage.

League DGroup 1Malta, Andorra, Latvia, Faroe Islands
Group 2San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar

Too Confusing?

Increased quality of matches when compared to friendlies, better financial stability for member associations and a clear fixture calendar are some of the advantages of Nations League, but it has its flip side too. 

Many people have criticised the confusing format of the competition and FIFA's Chief of Global Football Development Arsene Wenger was the latest on the list. "If you ask people in the street what the Nations League is, you won’t find many able to explain it,” said former Arsenal manager Wenger. And he has a point.

Although all member associations in Europe are involved, apart from League A where all four group champions progress into the finals, the competition ends abruptly with teams ranked based on their overall points. The format is too confusing and detached for a regular fan to be excited about, but for now, the Nations League is here to stay.

Published: November 09, 2020
Last updated: November 09, 2020
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