There was a landmark moment earlier this year in World Cup qualification. You might have missed it, but the goalless draw between France and Luxembourg in September was more significant than initially appeared. In terms of rankings, it was the biggest upset in European international football history and was reflective of a wider, greater development.
It showed how the gap between the best and the rest in the international game is closing. Look at how England have struggled through their qualifying group, with Iceland becoming the smallest nation to ever reach the World Cup, finishing top of a group that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey.
Indeed, the cliche that there are no easy games in international football has never rung truer. But just as that gap between the superpowers and the minnows is narrowing, along comes the UEFA Nations League. Don’t be fooled by its grand title or the convoluted format of the competition which will come into play next year. It will only widen that gap again.
Of course, many have been blinded by the Nations League’s complex format, and there is no doubting its complexity. 55 countries will take part, with those teams separated into four leagues (A-D) sorted by their coefficient. Those four leagues will be further divided into four groups (1-4) consisting of three or four sides. League A will be the domain of Europe’s biggest and best nations, with League D a backwater for the minnows.
And that, many believe, is the fundamental premise of the Nations League. It pits UEFA’s best international teams against each other on a more regular basis, pushing lesser sides into the shadows. Will anyone really watch Andorra against Gibraltar while Germany and Spain are facing each other in the competition’s top flight?
What’s more, the four league winners in League A will compete for qualification to the following European Championships. It’s just another way for UEFA to ensure that the biggest nations with the best teams, rooted in the most lucrative media markets, make their showcase international event.
Broadcast rights for competitive international games are now sold centrally by UEFA, and the Nations League gives the governing body the chance to dip their toe into a market that was previously the friendly match market. This is another way for UEFA to claim more rights and more power under their jurisdiction. And ultimately, another way for UEFA to secure yet more revenue, even if it is distributed out to member associations.
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As is the nature of the agreement between UEFA and its member associations, though, the biggest countries receive the most money, and with more money set to line the pockets of the governing body the biggest countries are set to get even richer. Sooner or later that financial gap will start to manifest itself in results on the pitch.
It’s true that international football is in need of a shake up, but the number of compelling storylines of late strongly hint that the Nations League will take the sport in the wrong direction. All around the world, there are signs of the narrowing gap between the best of the rest. It’s not just a European phenomenon, with Argentina only just scraping through CONMEBOL qualifying and the United States knocked out of contention on Tuesday night by Trinidad and Tobago. For all its faults, the expanded World cup format will give those smaller sides upsetting the natural order a chance to pull up a seat at the top table.
The Nations League will do the opposite. It will expose and accentuate the great division in European football that has, of late, narrowed. Most ironically of all, a concept designed to spark fresh interest in the International game could quell it for good.