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What is the UEFA Nations League?

An improvement upon “meaningless friendlies,” so they say

UEFA Nations League Draw Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images

Usually, the first few international breaks after the World Cup are dull, boring affairs. Teams often either bring back the exact groups you watched for a month over the summer, or entirely new squads that look like they’ve never played before in their lives.

And the friendlies, oh woe to us, the meaningless international friendlies — at least, that’s what UEFA thinks football supporters think like, anyway.

In an effort to cut down on the number of friendlies European teams play outside of the World Cup and Euro windows, UEFA instituted a brand new competition beginning this year — the UEFA Nations League.

It hasn’t really garnered a ton of attention, but Jordan Pickford, Seamus Coleman, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Cenk Tosun will all be participating in it this week, so it’s worth taking a quick look at exactly what it’s all about.

The Nations League is divided into 4 leagues, each of which are divided into 4 groups of 3-4 teams.

The leagues in the Nations League are basically an international competition equivalent to the tiered system seen in club football across the world.

League A — the top league — consists of the top 12 teams in Europe according to the UEFA national team coefficient (don’t bother looking it up, I promise it’s more math than you want to deal with). So league A consists of nations like Germany, Portugal, and France.

Both England and Iceland reside in League A — England is in a group with Spain and Croatia; Iceland with Belgium and Switzerland.

League B consists of the next 12 best teams in Europe, including countries like Wales, Russia, and Sweden.

Seamus Coleman’s Ireland and Cenk Tosun’s Turkey are both in League B. Turkey will face Russia and Sweden, while Ireland is in a group with Wales and Denmark.

Leagues C and D are constructed similarly, but no Evertonians are set to feature in either league, so that’s all we’ll say about them — for now.

The process for the group stage is quite straightforward — maybe the only straightforward thing about this convoluted mess. Each team plays the other teams in its group home and away, meaning four group stage games in Leagues A and B, six in Leagues C and D, which have more teams.

All of these matches will take place in the upcoming three international breaks. The final period of Nations League group stage matches occurs November 18-20, 2018.

What happens at the end of the group stage is dependent upon which league is in focus.

  • In Leagues B, C, and D, each group winner is promoted to the next highest league for the next iteration of the Nations League (which occurs between Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022).
  • In Leagues A, B, and C, the last-place team in each group is relegated into the next lowest league for the next iteration of the Nations League.
  • In League A, each group winner goes onto play in a playoff for the Nations League title in June 2019. The group winners will be paired off to face each other in the semifinals, then the winners will play in a final, while the losers play in a third-place match.

In terms of the basic format of the competition...that’s pretty much it. There’s a huge caveat missing from this explainer — four teams will qualify for Euro 2020 on the basis of their Nations League performance.

But the rules surrounding that process are so convoluted that I’m dedicating another entire post to just those rules. I encourage you to check it out, because that’s really where the most interesting (and idiotic) rules are.

But for now, let’s briefly look at what the competition itself will mean for the Everton players involved. Pickford and Sigurdsson are the only two Everton players in League A — and to be frank, both might be favorites to be relegated to League B at the end of the competition.

Pickford and England face perennial powerhouse Spain and World Cup runners-up Croatia, while Sigurdsson faces Belgium and Switzerland. I certainly don’t think you’d call either of them group favorites, at the very least.

In League B, the participating Evertonians might have a little bit more luck. Cenk Tosun and Turkey will face Russia and Sweden — two teams coming off strong World Cup performances, but with legitimate questions about how sustainable that growth will be.

Ireland’s group contains two legitimate superstar opponents, who are backed by teams composed of questionable talent. Coleman’s comrades will face off against Christian Eriksen’s Denmark and Gareth Bale’s Wales.

Ireland and Turkey are likely to be more interested in the Nations League than England and Iceland, as they are more likely to need the Nations League’s path to qualification for Euro. If you’re interested in how a team can qualify for Euro 2020 via the Nations League, check out this related post.