UEFA Nations League explained: why it's all change for Euro 2020 qualification

What is it? Who's in it? And why it could mean the Faroe Islands at Euro 2020: Huw Davies explains the UEFA Nations League before Wednesday's official draw. Do keep up...

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When is it? 1pm, GMT • Where is it? Lausanne, Switzerland

Right, take a seat – we’ve a lot to get through. You’re here because you want either to A) Know how the Nations League is going to work; B) See an example of the Nations League in action; or C) Understand why the League of Nations was unable to halt the aggressive expansion of Germany and prevent a Second World War.

Well, we’re happy to accommodate two-thirds of you, at least. Scroll on down for our explanation of what to expect from the 2018/19 UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers.

But first: a disclaimer. While the tournament setup is accurate, because that’s kind of the point here, the specific scenario outlined below is entirely illustrative and in no way a prediction of which teams will succeed or fail miserably over the next few years. Please leave all hate mail at the door – preferably not ours.

The what, why, when and where

In a nutshell, UEFA created the Nations League to replace international friendlies and add a competition to those horrible non-tournament years. Remember how barren last summer felt, even though European qualification for the 2018 World Cup began in September 2016? That 15-month slog and the empty summer are both gone for good.

The qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 will produce 20 of its 24 offspring within nine months, from immaculate conception in March 2019 to cigars all round in November. There’ll be 10 groups of five or six teams and the top two will qualify: simplicity itself. And June of that year will no longer see fans deprived of an international tournament. Even with no World Cup or European Championship to empty our Panini sticker bank accounts, we’ll be watching the finals of the UEFA Nations League.

The Nations League will take place in the autumn of 2018 (and every even-numbered year after it) and involve all 55 UEFA nations, with four triumphantly ascending to June 2019’s finals stage. Then, across five glorious summer days, one country will host a mini-tournament for those four teams: two semi-finals, a third-place play-off and a final.


Promotion battles and relegation dogfights

Because a 55-team league would be slightly cumbersome, the Nations League is divided into four… well, leagues. Ranked by UEFA coefficient – which is not the same as the FIFA rankings, but that’s a rabbit hole you really don’t want to go down right now – the teams are placed in Leagues A to D. Here they are, look:


Yes, that’s World Cup-bound Serbia in Group C alongside Lithuania and Estonia. And yes, that’s the Netherlands in Group A – the same Netherlands who failed to qualify for Euro 2016, despite literally half of the professional teams in Europe managing it, and who won’t be at Russia 2018 either. Reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Brazil is a) still worth 20% of their coefficient points, and b) carrying them at this point. King Louis says, “You’re welcome”.

Next, the teams in each league, A to D, are drawn into four groups within each league. Sadly it’s not a complete free-for-all, so there won’t be a Group of Death consisting of Spain, world champions Germany and European champions Portugal. No, as they do in the Champions League and Europa League, the spoilsports at UEFA have created seeded pots within each group within each league. Groups, leagues, seeds, pots – it’s half-tournament, half-allotment.


And here’s where our example scenario begins. While everything above is confirmed, this bit below is not the final draw. We’re showing it because learning is fun.

So, ahead of the official draw on Wednesday, January 24, let’s see an example of how those Nations League groups might be drawn.


Look at that! Tantalising, no? You’ve got the best teams in Europe – and the Dutch – facing off in competitive matches rather than friendlies, not to mention the possibility of Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland making up one group. Plus, at long last, UEFA’s minnows and emerging nations can play meaningful games against opposition of a standard closer to their own. Besides, who wouldn’t want to watch Liechtenstein vs Luxembourg, or the Brexit Holiday Clasico that is Malta vs Gibraltar?

Best of all, every match matters. Teams play each other twice and the group winners are promoted to the league above while those at the bottom of their group are jettisoned into the sun. Wait – no, they’re relegated. Sorry, our mistake. Anyway, this means that when the 2020/21 Nations League rolls around, each group will look very different.

Finally (for now), the four group winners in League A will qualify for that aforementioned Nations League finals tournament taking place in June 2019. It’ll be like the European Championship of 1960 to 1980, when only four teams were invited, but this time the final won’t be contested by Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Probably.

Behold: the Faroe Islands at Euro 2020

Then it starts to get a little more complicated and a lot more controversial. Earlier, we mentioned that the usual Euro 2020 qualifiers in 2019 will be responsible for 20 of the final 24 teams. The other four will emerge from play-offs created by results in the Nations League – one for every tier, right down to League D. Each league has four group winners, as you’ll recall, and they’ll face each other in semi-finals, then a final. With four group winners per league, that’s 16 teams in all who’ll get a shot at qualifying through the play-offs.

Struggling to visualise this? Here’s how the tables might – might – look once the results are in.


France, Germany and Switzerland are joined in the Nations League finals tournament by England, who surprisingly win their group by virtue of Spanish experimentation, the secession of Catalonia in this made-up universe of ours, and the fact that the Three Lions actually play quite well in non-tournament matches against sides they aren’t expected to beat. However, European champions Portugal fall into League B for the 2020/21 campaign.

In the interests of neutrality, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all finish level on points, goal difference, goals, away goals, height, weight and blood type, and end up drawing lots. Michael O’Neill and his men are promoted to League A; Martin O’Neill and his men are demoted to League C.

Meanwhile, things go so badly for Ally McCoist's Scotland that they disappear into the basement division to face San Marino and Liechtenstein next time around. Elsewhere in League C, Israel finish bottom of their three-team group but aren’t relegated because they aren’t the worst third-placed side, as Bulgaria record fewer points against the top two teams in their group. (Uneven groups are a pain in the arse for everybody, so if anyone else wants to play – Catalonia, Northern Cyprus, Cornwall – UEFA would probably be fine with that.)

But most importantly, perhaps, we have our four play-off candidates from League D. Imagine Paul Merson’s horror when – if – he understands that one of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kosovo and the Faroe Islands will definitely be playing at Euro 2020. He may remember Georgi Kinkladze, at least.

See? We told you it’s controversial. Exciting, but controversial.

Frequently asked complaints

This is one reason many people are sceptical, dismissive or simply pissed off. Azerbaijan will be the favourites in League D; they’re on the up, but do they deserve a place in the finals of a major tournament? There’s a place open for any country in Europe (and some that patently aren’t – UEFA member Kazakhstan share a border with China and play their home games due north of Mumbai).

It’s a fair argument, but one that a critic can make only if they also drop the lazy-but-popular claim that UEFA are doing all this just for money. If Iceland (population: 335,000) are the smallest side ever to reach a World Cup; UEFA won’t get much revenue if the fast-improving Faroes (population: 50,000) qualify to represent a nation that could fit inside Ibrox.

A bigger problem is in how the play-offs reward prestige rather than success. If they cock up their qualifying campaign in 2019, Europe’s giants can have a second bite of the cherry even if they’d previously cocked up their Nations League campaign as well. Because there’s an obvious flaw to the idea that each 2018/19 Nations League group winner will enter March 2020’s play-off for that year’s European Championship: the majority of them will already have qualified for it. So will most, if not all, of League A and a hefty chunk of League B.

Here are those final Nations League tables again, but this time we’ve put a time-honoured “(Q)” next to the 20 sides who then qualified for Euro 2020 through the usual route in 2019.


Ah. In our not-unrealistic version of future events, every group winner in Leagues A and B subsequently made it through the qualifiers anyway. So… what happens now?

League D’s play-offs work as planned: the ‘best’ group winner hosts the ‘worst’ group winner in one semi-final, and the second-best hosts the third-best in the other, before the two victors go head-to-head for qualification, their match being played at the home of whoever wins a random draw between the two (ouch). League C is also fairly straightforward, with two group winners joined by two runners-up to teams who’ve already booked their ticket to Euro 2020.

League B, though, must accept that its group winners are too good for their silly little play-off. Wales and Austria pick up the sloppy seconds, not that they’re complaining, and they’re joined by Slovakia and Russia, who – for the sake of argument, say – each lost all four of their Nations League group matches. Maybe they lost all of their Euro 2020 qualifiers as well. Yet they’re play-off bound. De-fault! De-fault!

By this point, there’s nobody left to play the sorry Dutch, the only top-tier team yet to receive a Euro 2020 invite. So League A’s play-offs pick up the scraps, and March 2020’s showdown becomes a battle between the Netherlands, the Czechs, Norway and Montenegro – four sides who, some 18 months ago, either finished bottom of their group or failed to win promotion from League C. That should give the Dutch courage.


Swings and roundabouts

There are problems, then. The setup is overly favourable to big fish, little fish and possibly cardboard boxes as well. League D teams unexpectedly get a place, and everyone in Leagues A and B, plus half of the teams in League C, is given two chances to qualify. Also, with 20 teams qualifying normally and a further 16 entering play-offs, the Euro 2020 qualification campaign will definitively eliminate only 19 countries, or a third of UEFA. The crap third.

However, that’s the consequence of inviting 24 teams to the European Championship in the first place – and Euro 2016 still turned out all right. As for minnows diluting the quality of the final tournament, people said the same thing last year about Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and this is only one team. Besides, in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers, League D nations collectively took points off France (Luxembourg and Belarus both), Italy (Macedonia), Poland (Kazakhstan), Romania (Kazakhstan again), Hungary (Andorra and the Faroes), Austria, Wales and the Republic of Ireland (all Georgia).

Finally, if you’re wondering how they’re packing it all in, don’t worry about your club’s stars being overworked. Contrary to popular belief, there are no extra games being played; only friendlies being replaced. And there’s even room in the schedule for countries to continue arranging their own friendlies against whoever they want across the globe – especially the top nations, who are in smaller groups for the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers and therefore have more rest days.

In short, there are swings and there are roundabouts. But there will also be plenty of entertainment.

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