Last Sunday, when Portugal won their second ever international trophy, defeating the Netherlands 1-0 to win the UEFA Nations League, questions were raised on the subject of the validity of the competition.
Never before has there been a competitive trophy in European International football besides the European Championships and the World Cup, yet one question remained about the inaugural Nations League: is this a new and refreshing competition that is here to stay? Or will it be short-lived, given its occurrence inbetween major international tournaments and lack of international significance?
I happen to believe that this year’s inaugural Nations League was a resounding success. While many players will have been fatigued given their lack of a break following the 2018 World Cup, the 2018-19 domestic season and now the Nations League, it allows players another opportunity to achieve international glory with their country and gives International friendlies more of a purpose, given that the winners of each group enter into playoff rounds for a spot in Euro 2020.
After the culmination of the domestic season, as would so often be the case, teams would be forced to jet halfway across the world to play unimportant friendlies for the national team, which offer nothing but the opportunity for the team to play together. The Nations League, on the other hand, makes International fixtures competitive at every level due to the tiered system, and allows for promotion and relegation, meaning that there is an incentive for every team taking part. For example, teams such as Georgia and Kosovo won their respective groups in League D, and hence will progress to League C in the next Nations League, and have also secured a play-off fixture for a place at Euro 2020, which would be extremely difficult for such teams to secure through the traditional route.
Following the culmination of the Nations League, the players will still receive a large summer break until pre-season begins in July – with both the Nations League semi-finals and final being played in the same week, it barely reduces the players’ summer holidays, suggesting that fatigue will not be an issue for the following season, as has been suggested.
In the same vein, while it has been suggested that the Nations League will struggle to attract large crowds, this year’s inaugural tournament has proved that not to be the case. The Portugal vs Netherlands final entertained 42,415 fans, just under 8,000 shy of the Estádio do Dragão’s entire capacity, with over 20,000 English fans alone embarking on the trip to Porto to watch their team play in the UEFA Nations League.
It provides an alternative to the habitual international friendlies and presently the often uninspiring European qualifiers, and with a piece of silverware awaiting the winner, it certainly is a tournament that engages national teams. The Nations League also allows the opportunity for countries to claim silverware which are not usually in contention; Switzerland, for example, have never before reached an International semi-final, and came within a whisker of reaching the final, had it not been for Ronaldo’s late flurry of goals last Thursday evening.
On the issue of tiredness, England and Tottenham left-back Danny Rose stated ‘It’s not draining coming to play for your country […] whenever you’re selected for England it’s a great occasion.’ The opportunity to represent one’s country on the highest stage is a lifelong ambition for many professional footballers, and the UEFA Nations League provides them with yet another chance to compete for silverware. For the viewer, the Nations League offers so much potential. The inaugural Nations League allowed fans to engage once more with their national teams and to reduce the gap between the European Championships and the World Cup: for us, it signified more competitive football on our TV screens following the end of the domestic season.
No matter what you think of the Nations League, it appears here to stay – while Portugal have won the first, it will not be the last.
Another opportunity for both players and fans to engage with their national team and challenge for silverware should not be taken lightly, as the UEFA Nations League provides a new, refreshing and competitive avenue for International football, distracting fans from the wait for next summer’s European Championships.
The 2019 UEFA Nations League has been incredibly successful; it has brought thousands of fans to Portugal in support of their national team, made the international break more interesting and competitive, and rewarded Portugal with only their second-ever international trophy.