UEFA’s new pet project — the UEFA Nations League — starts up this week, and there’s a fair bit of confusion about what exactly it means for participating nations.
I took an in-depth look at exactly how the competition is structured in a previous post — for all the details, you’ll want to check that out.
But in short, all UEFA nations were divided into four leagues based on their ability — simply named League A, B, C, and D, with A containing the best teams and D the worst teams. Each league is broken up into four groups.
Every team plays each of its group members home and away between now and the end of November. Teams that win their group move up a league for the next Nations League (in League A, the four group winners will play in a playoff to determine the Nations League champion in June 2019).
Teams that lose their group move down a league for the next Nations League — save for those in Group D, who simply remain in Group D.
In terms of the Nations League itself...that’s pretty much it. Everton players in the competition will play four matches in the tournament between now and the end of November, unless England or Iceland manage to win their group — which would only add two additional matches in June 2019.
I suppose it’s a reasonably entertaining way to see top teams play against each other over the next few months, but from a neutral’s perspective, that’s about all the competition accomplishes on its own. However, there is an important caveat to all that...
The Nations League will determine the final four teams to qualify for Euro 2020.
That, to me, is already somewhat strange — to take a brand new competition and infuse it with stakes that high. But I could understand it if it was as simple as “the four best finishers from Nations League that don’t qualify the standard way for Euro get to go to Euro.”
But no, UEFA has to turn that into a convoluted nightmare too.
If you haven’t had your coffee or tea yet today, please inject some directly into your veins as I endeavor to explain to you how teams can qualify for Euro via the Nations League.
Let’s start with the basics — Nations League doesn’t change anything about standard qualifying for Euro. In fact, it manages to simplify the standard Euro qualification process.
In December, after the Nations League is complete (save the League A title playoff), the 55 UEFA teams will be drawn into 10 groups for Euro qualifying. Each team will play home and away to each of its group-mates, and the top two teams in each group qualify for Euro.
That gives us 20 teams, but the Euro field is composed of 24. So, we’re going to get those final four teams from the Nations League.
This is where things start to get wacky.
There are four “paths” (I put that in quotes because that’s what UEFA calls them, even if I think it’s a stupid freakin’ name) through which teams can qualify for Euro. These paths are based loosely on the four different Leagues within the Nations League.
Let’s start at the bottom with Path/League D, because the logistics of this portion are the most straightforward, even if its conclusion is the single dumbest thing about Nations League.
The four group winners from League D will be put together in Path D after Euro qualifying is over. If one of the League D group winners qualifies for Euro through standard qualifying, their place is taken by the best second-place finisher in the League.
The best-ranked team in Path D then plays the worst-ranked team in Path D in a single match, while the second- and third-ranked teams do the same.
The winners of the two semifinal matches then play against each other, and the winner qualifies for Euro 2020.
That means one of the teams from League D — whose best teams are probably Azerbaijan and Macedonia — will qualify for Euro 2020 at the expense of an undoubtedly better team.
I really cannot put into words how ludicrous that reality is, so I’m not going to try. Let’s move onto Path C.
Path C operates the same way as Path D — there exists a theoretical potential for more complex happenings regarding the teams eligible for Path C, but the likelihood of such an outcome is so infinitesimally small as to render that conversation pointless.
So let’s just assume that the four group-winners compete in a playoff for a Euro spot — with the caveat that any group winner who qualifies for Euro through the standard route will be replaced by the best second-place finisher.
So that’s two of the four spots earned, and with relatively straightforward (if moronic) rules.
Once we get into Path B, things get a little trickier. Recall that League B has teams like Wales, Austria, Russia, and Sweden — teams that are likely going to qualify for Euro through the standard means.
The Path B competitors consists of the group winners in League B, same as the other paths, but in all likelihood, most of those teams will have qualified through conventional means. So, they will be replaced by the next best finishers who did not qualify for Euro through standard means.
However, there’s a real possibility that there will be less than four non-Euro qualifying teams in League B. If this comes to pass, the remaining teams in League B who didn’t qualify for Euro via standard means will go into Path B.
The other teams in Path B depend on which teams from League B went into Path B. If:
- None of the League B teams in Path B won their League B group, then the additional team(s) in Path B will be the highest-ranked overall standard non-Euro qualifier, regardless of which league they were in during the Nations League group stage. Essentially, in this instance, a team from League A could get pulled into Path B.
- One or more of the League B teams in Path B did win their League B group, then the additional team(s) are the highest-ranked standard non-Euro qualifier from Leagues C or D. No League A teams are permitted into Path B if Path B includes at least one League B group winner.
Finally, we’re at League/Path A, which easily has the greatest potential for ludicrous nonsense the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in international football.
Like the other paths, Path A, in theory, would consist of the four best League A finishers that didn’t qualify for Euro through conventional means.
But this is League A we’re talking about — nations like Germany, France and Spain. The overwhelming likelihood is that less than four teams from this league will fail to qualify for the Euros through conventional means.
In reality, it’ll be at most one or two teams, and could even plausibly have no teams that fail to qualify for Euro.
So let’s entertain two scenarios — one in which only one League A team doesn’t qualify for Euro through standard means, and one in which all League A teams qualify for Euro through standard means.
Let’s start by pretending that Netherlands are the only League A team not to qualify for Euro, mostly because it’s fun to imagine a non-Everton team also being ruined by Ronald Koeman.
So they would automatically enter Path A, but with no other teams in League A available, they’ll have to pull from the lower leagues to fill out the path.
Now there’s an important point to be made here that I haven’t yet explicitly stated — the Paths are built starting from Path D and working up to Path A.
That is, these rules are applied to the teams in League D to form Path D, then League C for Path C, League B for Path B, and finally League A for Path A. So once you get to Path A, the best non-qualifiers from each of the other leagues have already been assigned to a path!
So let’s assume that the 20 traditional Euro qualifiers in this scenario come exclusively from Leagues A and B — this means one League A team (Netherlands) and three League B teams are the only non-qualifiers from the top two leagues in the Nations League.
Because the paths are formed working from the bottom up though, by the time we get to Netherlands in League/Path A, all the teams in League B have already been assigned to Path B, and the group winners in League C have already been assigned to Path C.
So — Netherlands’ reward for failing to qualify for Euro in the traditional way is a mini-playoff in which they’d have to beat two teams like Albania and Norway.
Beat Albania and Norway. For an automatic spot in Euro 2020.
Are you kidding me?
Let’s quickly entertain the other scenario — in which every League A team qualifies through standard means for Euro 2020. Let’s say that 12 teams from League A, 7 from League B, and 1 from League C have qualified.
So, Path B would consist of the four best teams in League B — a group that could feasibly consist of reasonably talented nations like Northern Ireland, Demark, Turkey, and Sweden.
But because Path B is built before Path A, and all League A teams have already qualified, the first team to go into Path A would be the worst team in League B. That team would then be matched up with the best teams in League C who didn’t get into Path C — again, think Albania and Norway.
So the worst team in League B is...rewarded for their futility? While the better teams from League B fight it out for a Euro spot among themselves?
I originally planned to write my summary of what the Nations League is and how teams can use Nations League to qualify for Euro in the same post. But, the deeper I got into the utterly absurd rules for Euro qualifying via this path, the more I realized this topic needed its own post.
And here we are, 1,700 words later, with a headache and vaguely angry at the idea of Ronald Koeman getting a ticket to Euro 2020 via defeating Albania and Norway.
But that’s really what UEFA has done here. UEFA has established what seem to be the most astoundingly arbitrary set of rules to hand out four tickets to arguably the second-biggest international competition in the world.
And to what end? Reducing meaningless friendlies? Getting Macedonia slaughtered 9-0 by Spain in a Euro group stage game?
I don’t know what makes less sense — UEFA’s rules or their misconstrued sense of achievement at putting this monstrosity together in the first place.