UEFA announced the makeup of their four leagues that will compete in the new Nations League. Europe is dropping most of their friendly dates in favor of a promotions and relegation format that features a playoff for the title. The new Nations League begins on September 6, 2018.
Club vs country in Europe is an ongoing negotiation. UEFA runs the most lucrative club competition in world soccer, the Champions League. Part of its success is giving fans more games that count between Europe's top clubs. Moving that idea to international football, they came up with the Nations League to replace most of their friendly dates. Games that don't count come under more scrutiny from clubs wondering why they're releasing players and domestic leagues wondering why they have to take breaks in their schedule. UEFA's answer is games that count in years when there are no European or World Cup qualifiers. "The UEFA Nations League aims to ensure the continued success of national team football by replacing most friendlies with competitive matches and by allowing all nations to play against equally-ranked teams."
How does it work?
There are four leagues based on country coefficient rankings. The top 12 national teams are in League A. The next dozen are in League B. League C has the next 15. League D has the remaining 16. There's not enough space on the schedule for a home and away league format, so UEFA has each team part of a group of three or four teams within their league. That's up to a draw set for January 24, 2018. Four teams move up and down between the leagues, but not until the second edition of the tournament starting in September 2020. The top four finishers in League A enter the playoffs with those semifinals single games rather than two-leg series. UEFA is also using the Nations League to determine four playoff spots for the European Championship.
So Europe is done with international friendlies?
Not all of them. There are still open dates on the calendar, just not very many. What that means is that every open European friendly date is now special with the expectation that the teams involved will act accordingly. What UEFA is doing should return a bit of prestige to friendlies as well as giving them tactical importance. If you're a European country wanting to know how you matchup against a potential World Cup opponent from anywhere else, your friendly options are now limited.
Is this what the fans want?
That's the question UEFA is asking. Nobody was pushing for a league structure for international teams outside of the people running European soccer. Imposing a league structure onto international soccer seems like an odd choice. We already have the club game for that. International soccer is about qualifying and tournament play interspersed with friendlies. Not anymore. Europe is sending a clear message about priorities, and its games that count replacing friendlies.
What about the rest of the world?
Since the rest of the world followed the Champions League model with their confederation club competitions, it's a safe assumption that they'll also follow the Nations League model. Assuming UEFA launches this successfully and sponsors, broadcasters, and fans respond accordingly other parts of the world will try. CONCACAF, for one, has already floated the idea.
2018-19 UEFA Nations League A