Most media outlets felt obliged to publish something explaining how the Nations League works when it began (this one included). The new international tournament looked like football’s bigwigs had found a way to awkwardly thumb promotion and relegation into a framework which bears a slight resemblance to the Champions League group stages, naturally with profitability at the forefront of their minds. Before October’s spate of fixtures, Jurgen Klopp described the Nations League as “the most senseless competition in the world.”
The Liverpool manager must not be aware of the defunct Anglo-Italian Cup, nor what unfolded in the Nations League in the month prior to his disparaging comments. FIFA has unexpectedly and miraculously boosted the appeal of international football.
September’s international break was quite good – at least much better than the rash of humdrum friendlies and lopsided competitive matches that crassly interrupted club campaigns in the past. A rocket from Georgia’s Giorgi Chakvetadze marked the inaugural Nations League goal and set the tone for an enthralling few days which saw Spain blitz Croatia, Kosovo claim its first competitive victory, and other minnows like Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands record overdue wins. In CONCACAF’s preliminary games to determine how the three rungs of its own Nations League will look, Aruba was playing its third competitive outing in three years and followed two losses in 2016 with victory over Bermuda.
October’s international break was arguably better. A rejuvenated Netherlands smashed three unanswered strikes past Germany. England fashioned a trio of well-worked goals in a surprise success against Spain. Gibraltar won its first competitive match and then nabbed another three points against Liechtenstein. In four days, Gibraltar had won the same number of matches as Germany had mustered in the past year.
National teams are reaping the rewards of a tiered structure, where friendlies and one-sided qualification results have been replaced by meaningful, keenly contested bouts.
“I think in our team, everyone wants to play in competitive games. I think the Nations League is a really, really good new competition because we don’t have the friendlies anymore,” BATE Borisov attacker Jasse Tuominen, a regular in the Finland lineup, told theScore.
The four wins to begin Finland’s Nations Cup excursion are a credit to the simplified, team-first approach instilled by manager Markku Kanerva, but also aided by a more detectable route to a major tournament through the Nations League. Finland needs just one point from its remaining two matches for promotion into Group 1, and to simultaneously strengthen its chances of reaching Euro 2020 via a mini cup competition that spawns from the Nations League.
“It’s great for a small country like ours to get an extra chance to get to the Euros, where we haven’t been before,” Tuominen added.
For countries in more remote areas, the Nations League has brought welcome structure to their football calendar. Willie Donachie, a Glaswegian whose fruitful playing career included spells with Manchester City and Oldham Athletic, is in charge of Montserrat, and has quickly become an ambassador for a country with superb hospitality which is, in his words, “like going up to the north of Scotland, only it’s hot.”
The majority of his players ply their trade in England’s lower leagues, and in the past, the cost of flying them over for friendlies has been too much. Before Montserrat began its campaign to determine its placement in the CONCACAF Nations League, its last outing was in 2015, when hopes for 2018 World Cup qualification were promptly dashed by Curacao.
Montserrat has just played four matches in the space of two months, with FIFA funding the players’ traveling arrangements. Donachie stitched together a threadbare squad – with a three-man defense comprised of one central midfielder and two full-backs – and carved out a narrow last-second defeat to El Salvador and a historic win against Belize. Montserrat’s performances promise to inspire a new generation of footballers and bring money into the island nation.
“The Nations League means they definitely get four games this season, and they’ll start to regularly play games (after the qualifying stage). All the young players in all these countries are getting more experience, playing against better teams,” Donachie shared with theScore. “It’s good for football in the world. It’s a great idea.”
Following the scandals, blatant disregard for women’s football, and frankly unwatchable award ceremonies, it feels peculiar to praise FIFA – but in this case, it’s merited. Rather than sporadic and often humiliating defeats for small Caribbean sides and, among UEFA fixtures, regular pointless friendlies or landslide losses for the likes of Gibraltar and Kosovo, international breaks are teeming with close and absorbing skirmishes. Even if it wasn’t a priority when the designs were being drawn up, FIFA is looking after the little nations.
“FIFA have done a fantastic job setting this up,” Donachie said. “After all the corruption and stuff they’re trying to do the right thing: put their money where it is really useful.”