Now, like us, many of you might have settled into the weekend international friendlies only to be informed that these are not friendlies, but are part of a brand new tournament - the Nations League. There's been a lot of confusion around the subject, so here we are to clear it up.
Who is in the League?
All 55 teams that will compete for places in Euro 2020 are partaking in the Nations League. They are split into 4 tiers from League A to League D. Each of these leagues has four groups within it, named groups one to four.
England have been placed in League A, group 4 with the likes of Spain and Croatia.
Wales and the Republic of Ireland are in League B, group 4 with Denmark.
Northern Ireland are in League B, group 3 with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria.
Scotland are in League C, group 1 with Albania and Israel.
Promotions and Relegations
Each international team competes against the other teams in its group, playing them both twice between September and November. Whoever is top of each group is then promoted to the next league, but the same group. The person on the bottom is relgated to the lower league, but the same group. That means anyone in group A is relgated or promoted to a group A in the lower or higher leagues.
The basic rule is that the competition is to be played in the years where there is neither a World Cup or European championship. Once the games in September and November are over, the promotions/relegations done with, the four nations who win the groups in the top league will advance to a knockout championships in the summer and win a trophy, although not quite as prestigious as the World Cup, naturally.
Does this effect the Euros?
Another change has been made to the Euro qualificaitons with the introduction of this new league. The qualification has now been simplified. There is still a European qualifiers group stage. Twenty teams will qualify from those games to earn places in the tournament. That element has not changed. However, the four bottom places are now up for grabs from the Nations League.
If a group winner has already qualified via the European qualifier group stage, then their place is taken by the next best ranked team in the Nations League. If there are not four teams from each league available, then the best team from a lower league is promoted to fill the spot. This gives 16 teams who did not qualify in the European qualifiers group stage a second chance by entering a new set of play-offs. The best teams from these makeshift leagues play each other again to determine the winner and can earn a qualification to the Euros.
The simple explanation is this: Let's say England fail to qualify for the Euros (not unheard of). Should that happen, England will be playing against other teams in its league (from the Nations League) that also did not qualify for the Euros. These are better teams, and so are more of a challenge. Should England not beat the other three opponents, then they would ont be going to the Euros. That being said, a League D team who failed at the European qualifiers, but won against the other three league D teams does go to the Euros, despite not being a better side than England.
This does mean that we are more likely to see some underdogs in the Euros, but it does raise a point as to why a team who might have just missed out on both opportunities, playing better opponents, are ultimately punished for performing well enough in the Nations League to be promoted, but then have a tougher task to face should they not qualify for the Euros. As a football team, it would be much easier to stay in a lower league and play the lower ranked teams just in case you don't qualify for the Euros through the group stage, and have an easier path to deal with in order to enter in through that back door.
For example, if you were Wales in League 2 and did not get through the group stages of the European qualifiers, would you rather play other League 2 teams like Austria and Sweden maybe, or play hard, be promoted to League 1, and if you don't qualify for the Euros the first time around, play teams like Belgium or Spain who might have missed out on the Euros (this is unlikely for these two teams, but these are better teams).
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