Portugal lifted the inaugural Nations League title on Sunday and they are unlikely to be the only people in European football celebrating this week.
European football governing body UEFA will have a sense of satisfaction after the successful conclusion of the event — although how the tournament progresses from here is not entirely clear.
“It is a positive experience for European football,” said Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic. And given his side finished fourth and last of those competing at the finals he seems an unbiased observer.
The brainchild of disgraced former UEFA president Michel Platini, the Nations League was created in part because the body’s flagship club tournament — the Champions League — had achieved a dominance which threatened international football.
More competitive games and fewer friendlies? Top sides playing well against each other? Minnows having realistic chances of success? An enjoyable finals with a global superstar delivering the title to a grateful host nation?
T ick, tick, tick, tick, at least from the point of view of UEFA. Even England fans causing trouble early on in Porto and being branded “embarrassing” by manager Gareth Southgate did not spoil the mood.
“The Nations League is a great tournament,” said Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman after losing the final to Portugal on Sunday. “You saw how happy Portugal were to win this prize and how much we wanted to win it.”
After providing Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo with another title after Euro 2016, “the next one” looms already with the draw scheduled for early 2020 with group games later that year and another finals in 2 021.
But the headline League A has less glamour following the relegation of World Cup finalists Croatia and mighty Germany. Promoted Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark and Sweden have earned their t op-flight spots but do not bring the same marketing appeal.
A potentially bigger problem exists without the potential carrot of a path to the European Championships. League D will send one of minnows Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo or Belarus through the play-offs to Euro 2020 but the World Cup in 2022 complicates matters.
UEFA has only 13 spots for Qatar rather than 24 for its continental e vent. It has suggested the Nations League could yet provide a path to the World Cup but how and how many has not been confirmed. It would certainly seem unlikely the lower leagues C and D will be offered a route to Qatar outside traditional qualifying given the scarcity of spots.
And perversely this creates an incentive for certain countries promoted last time — Scotland to League B for example — to be
elegated back to a level they could realistically gain a play-off s pot to Euro 2024 via the 2023 Nations League.
Similarly Slovenia, relegated to League D, have little to gain from immediate promotion back to League C next time when, ahead of Euro 2024, a spot among the lowest nations would make them strong f avourites to gain a play-off berth.
Those are problems for the future, however. Before the first final, Koeman insisted the competition was not the equal of the Euros or the World Cup. He is right but few could have predicted winning the World Cup in the 1930s or Euros in the 1 960s would still hold such significance today.
“I’m sure this tournament will become a classic,” said Portugal coach F ernando Santos.
Looks like the event is here to stay.
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