When it was first unveiled, there was always a sense that the labyrinthian Nations League format was likely to have flaws, it was just a little too complicated to work out exactly what they’d be. But as the remnants of the tournament were being sifted during this international break to leave 16 candidates for the Euro 2020 play-offs in March, it became clear that there is something of a loophole – one which Northern Ireland are best placed to exploit.
You may remember that Northern Ireland had an atrocious Nations League campaign. Drawn in League B, Group 3 with Bosnia and Austria, they lost all four games to finish bottom with no points, having mustered only two goals, and were relegated to League C.
The Euro 2020 qualifying campaign has admittedly gone a little better. Michael O’Neill’s men did at least manage narrow wins over Estonia and Belarus, both home and away, but Germany and Netherlands proved too strong and Northern Ireland will finish the group third, whatever the result of their final game in Frankfurt on Tuesday night.
That, you might think, would be that. Except Northern Ireland have qualified for the play-offs – a set of semi-finals and finals in March which will add four more countries to the Euro 2020 – via the Nations League, despite flunking the competition. The success of Nations League A teams in qualifying for Euro 2020 meant their play-off places have been awarded to League B teams, and it means Northern Ireland are one of the biggest beneficiaries.
They have only beaten Estonia and Belarus in competitive games over the past two years, yet Northern Ireland could technically reach the Euros without winning another game, getting through their play-off semi-final and the final via penalties – a stretch, admittedly. It would mark the least deserved place in a major tournament since Qatar booked their spot at the 2022 World Cup, and we are all for it.
Teams in play-offs
Path A: Iceland, Bulgaria/Israel/Romania*, Wales/Slovakia/Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland**
Path B: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wales/Slovakia/Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland**
Path C: Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Bulgaria/Israel/Romania*
Path D: Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus
*In the current scenario, a draw would decide which of Bulgaria, Israel or Romania would fill the empty slot in Path C, and which two would go into Path A.
**In the current scenario, a draw would decide which three of Wales, Slovakia, Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland would join Bosnia and Herzegovina in Path B, and which one would go into Path A.