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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Uefa Nations League - a welcome addition or calendar clutter?

Coming so soon after a successful World Cup, will the brainchild of European football's governing body inject some much-needed verve into international breaks?

France striker Kylian Mbappe poses as he signs autograph to supporters at Clairefontaine National Training Center, near Paris, ahead of the world champions' Uefa Nations League opener against Germany. EPA
France striker Kylian Mbappe poses as he signs autograph to supporters at Clairefontaine National Training Center, near Paris, ahead of the world champions' Uefa Nations League opener against Germany. EPA

It is not yet eight weeks since an exhilarating, epoch-making World Cup came to end. Already a new international competition is being launched. In many respects, the Uefa Nations League, with its complicated format and its vague status, has much to fear given it is set so close to a truly classic edition of the king of tournaments.

The Nations League kicks off Thursday, and has a top-of-the-bill fixture to announce itself with: Germany versus France, deposed world champions at home, in Munich, to the new world champions, enough to stimulate the adrenaline above the level of a mere friendly. That’s part of what Uefa’s latest invention is about, to inject into those dates in the calendar that used to be filled with "meaningless friendlies" matches where the stakes may be lower than the normal qualifying for the 2020 European Championship, but where points and a title are at issue; and which, along the line, also serves to replace the play-offs for the European Championship finals.

The first thing to record is that not every star player is anxious to gather his first Nations League caps. Cristiano Ronaldo, figurehead for the reigning European champions, Portugal, is taking a rest from national duty as he settles into his new home in Turin, and practices his finishing, which has been a little shy of his usual high standards in his first three matches for Juventus since his July transfer from Real Madrid. Nor will Mesut Ozil be appearing for Germany. Ozil has declared his international career over, at least for the time being, after the furore that confronted him at the World Cup and after his controversial photocall with the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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The list of high-profile absentees from this month’s schedule lengthens, and spreads beyond Europe. Ronaldo’s posture is mirrored by that of Lionel Messi, taking a break of undetermined duration from representing an Argentina deeply unsettled by their shortcomings in Russia.

The Nations League will not be showcasing two of the last survivors from Spain’s 2008 European Championship success, the title that spawned a run of Spanish trophies. Andres Iniesta and David Silva have stepped away. So has Gerard Pique, a 2010 World Cup winner, tired of the booing by home crowds that had become a reflex whenever he took the field outside his native Barcelona. Italy, meanwhile, are without Gigi Buffon, whose focus is now on his fresh challenge as Paris Saint-Germain’s new goalkeeper, at 40 years old.

A crossroads moment then, for the international game? Summers after a World Cup often are. There is intrigue this weekend about how superpowers will manage significant transitions. Germany have seldom looked so vulnerable, while Spain have a new manager, Luis Enrique, whose first assignment is against England, semi-finalists in Russia, in London.

Like Germany-France, England-Spain is a top-tier fixture commercially. That’s part of the Nations League’s design: Each of the Uefa countries has been placed, according to their coefficiant rankings, in one of four divisions, A, B, C and D. In turn, those divisions are organised into four mini-groups. By the end of a first round robin, each mini-group leader in division A goes into a mini-tournament - two semi-finals and a final. Those will be played in June next year, in one of the four competing nations, provided that nation had submitted a bid to host.

Luis Enrique has been appointed the new manager of the Spain national team. Lluis Gene / AFP
Luis Enrique has been appointed the new manager of the Spain national team. Lluis Gene / AFP

Down the hierarchy, competitive edge is maintained by the possibility of promotion and relegation, with the winner of each mini-group in divisions B (which has 12 countries), C (which has 15) and D (16) going up and the four teams ending up at the bottom of each mini-group in divisions A, B and C going down a tier for the next edition of the Nations League. And there’s another carrot. Performances in the Nations League potentially offer a route into the European Championship finals for countries who may have fallen short in the regular qualifying phase of that competition. The last four finalists for the Euros will be decided via play-offs and qualification for those play-offs will be based only on standings in the Nations League, with a system of counting back if the most successful teams from each Nations League division have qualified for the Euros already.

Complicated? That part of it certainly is. A welcome addition to the international calendar, or just extra clutter? Some national team managers seem genuinely pleased to have something that resembles tournament competition, against similar standard opposition, in their diaries, in place of arbitrary friendlies. The major clubs, naturally, are sceptical.

“If the Nations League hadn’t been thought up, nobody would miss it,” snorted Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chief-executive of Bayern Munich, although he will be at least a little interested, at the Allianz Arena on Thursday, in seeing how many of his club’s players, the ones who returned sheepishly from Russia with the reputation of German football in need of urgent repair, perform against the buoyant French.

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