Gone are the days when a 5 – 1 away victory over Germany was not only eagerly anticipated, even before knowing what a romp it would be, but more so the genuine excitement, the passion and most importantly the pride such a fixture instilled. Still today the awfully tacky and horrendous looking 5-1 sun glasses can be found, but at present such an abysmal piece of match-day memorabilia only exists as a relic of the past, a time when international football, friendlies included, was both exciting and ardently supported by all. But could these glory days be set to return once again? In this article I will be looking at UEFA’s plan to reinvigorate international football and their desire to reestablish it as the pinnacle of the game we all love. UEFA recently announced that the UEFA Nations League has been given the green light, with its main aim being to bring “added status and appeal to national team football” when it is finally implemented in 2018. Michel Platini has always been preferred to his apparently corrupt and completely incompetent FIFA counterpart, Sepp Blatter, and with this latest concept he has done nothing but help cement his position as the good guy of the footballing organisations, introducing an exciting initiative that could well be successful in achieving its ambitious goals.
The UEFA statement accompanying the announcement is as follows:
“The key driver of the UEFA Nations League is sporting integrity, as member associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly feel that friendly internationals are not providing adequate sporting competition.”
I think this statement shows both a genuine understanding of the state of national team football at this time as well as a perfect identification of the problems that plague it.
International football and our appetite for it has faltered dramatically in recent years. Rather than being consumed by a surge of patriotism each time the international break begins – bar the major international tournaments – it seems instead a wave of depression sweeps the nation as we see our beloved Premier League taken away from us and replaced by sub-par performances against the minnows of international football, with 208th in FIFA World Rankings, San Marino, being a perfect example. Although the friendlies we play usually pit us against teams slightly more respectable, the lack of competitive spirit is all too evident and as a result we bear witness to 90 minutes of soul-draining football which we feel a moral obligation to endure. Each exhausting performance serves to confirm and in fact increase the lack of interest in international football with even the most avid supporters of the national team finding the snail-paced dead-rubbers difficult to stomach. Wembley’s attendance figures have become embarrassingly low and not only is the football played there disappointing, so too, as a direct consequence, is the dwindling support. However, as highlighted in the official statement, the UEFA Nations League looks to put an end to these threats to the ‘integrity’ of national football, a word I believe to be extremely important. It is not just the fact we have fallen out of love with England – placing the fitness of our club’s best players above any potential England result – but everything I’ve mentioned previously suggests that international football, which is supposed to be both the most illustrious honour and the greatest challenge in any footballer’s career, is in fact playing second fiddle to the domestic game, an inversion of the footballing hierarchy that UEFA rightly aim to fix.
Come 2018, the completely mismatched fixtures in which Germany waltz to a 7-0 drubbing, and Holland bask in a sea of goals will be a thing of the past. Instead we will be treated to international feasts in which the teams are evenly matched, pitting the best against the best and the not so good against the equally not so good. The new format will include 52 teams, firstly divided into four divisions based on their UEFA coefficient and then once again into four separate groups within each division. The heightened competition will culminate in a series of semi-finals and final made up of the divisional winners from the top group, whilst all others will face a battle for promotion/relegation, adding the nail-biting drama of the domestic season to the international format. Rewards for performing well in the Nations League come in the form of international bragging rights heading into the European Championships as well as potential places at the tournament for those unable to escape the talons of Europe’s elite in the qualification process.
I really do believe this new format will have a positive impact both on the standard of international football as well as the way we perceive it. The competitive edge and desire to win is what makes us love football and a lack of this is perhaps why we look down upon international friendlies. By introducing the Nations League, a format in which winning and losing have repercussions, international football (in Europe at least) will become more of the spectacle we are accustomed to see every other summer at the major tournaments as well as week-in-week-out in the domestic leagues. With this new platform in place, not only will beating Germany (if we are even placed in the same group as them) 5-1 in their own backyard be a scalp in its own right, but with the prospect now of 3 tangible points to come from it and a potential final up for grabs, the production of such vulgar merchandise mentioned at the beginning of the article will be all the more justified. The UEFA Nations League is an excellently formulated and necessary change to international football and as a result I expect nothing less than the international scene to flourish, returning to the great heights it once scaled, meaning most importantly of all, us as fans will begin once again to support England because we want to and love to, not because we bloody well have to.
For more specific information about the tournament visit the UEFA website here and feel free to add your opinion below.