What do Ferenc Puskás and Giorgi Chakvetadze have in common? Who even is Giorgi Chakvetadze? Well, if you were at your desk counting down the minutes last Thursday at 4.22pm, you may have missed a bit of history. Winger Chakvetadze cut in from the left before bending it into the top-right bin to give Georgia the lead over Kazakhstan. It was the UEFA Nations League’s first ever goal. A similar accolade was achieved by Puskás in the now defunct European/South American Cup 68 years previous.
There’s every reason not to trust football’s governing bodies. Whether it’s the sheer corruption of FIFA or a relative annoyance at the Premier League being hell-bent on making away travel for fans as difficult as possible with scheduling, you’d be forgiven for thinking that football’s big wigs don’t have you in mind when decisions are being made. But while UEFA have rightfully been criticised for the expansion of the European Championships in 2020, there is one positive by-product – the UEFA Nations League.
We didn’t even know what the Nations League was until last week, despite it being in the pipeline since 2014. But after one round of fixtures, we were undoubtedly sold – and not just because of the gorgeous logo/graphics. Of course, the Nations League is never going to propel itself into World Cup realms of important – much as the League Cup will never mean as much to English football’s elite as the Champions League. But like the League Cup does in club football, the Nations League can still play a significant role in international football.
Rather than explain the Nations League format – which is admittedly far from simple – the general idea is that ‘meaningless friendlies’ will now be far less frequent. Rather than pausing the Premier League season for Montenegro and Finland at Wembley, thanks to Groups being decided by FIFA rankings, England will be play the likes of Spain and Croatia. And regularly. Not only that, though it won’t replace Euro qualification, it does offer another route into the expanded tournament – something which could be invaluable to the British Isles’ lower ranked teams. Like all the best competitions, relegations and promotions are also incorporated just for some added drama.
For many of us, international football has long been an unwelcomed distraction from the club game. Forget friendlies where teams are rarely (if ever) at full strength, even ‘competitive’ tournament qualification campaigns have been plagued by drab 2-0 wins or coasting 6-0 drubbings. But the recent World Cup does show just how unifying and joyous the international game can be. When you break it down, a nation’s success at a major tournament is heightening for two main reasons; the importance of the games and the quality of the opposition. The Nations League – while nowhere near major competition realms – does improve both at the very least.
Not only will the competiveness of the games themselves improve inherently – as demonstrated by Spain’s win at Wembley – the likes of Gareth Southgate can prepare for major tournaments properly. You don’t play teams like Spain every week after all. For smaller international teams, the stakes are even greater than just preparation. By design, Euro qualification is tougher the lower you are ranked. The Nations League offers the chance of qualification against teams on your level.
Really we can’t see many disadvantages of the new format. And while the atmosphere at Wembley was palpably different on Saturday partly down to the success of the Three Lions in Russia, the arrival of Spain certainly played a role. Fans, if nothing else, were engaged. For once, UEFA may just have got something right – and we’re not talking about the logo.
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