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UEFA Nations League: Michel Platini's brainchild is more important than people think

The scene is a familiar one. It’s a dark and dank night, seemingly always on a Tuesday, and there’s an international friendly taking place.

Large swathes of empty seats are visible in the stands, with even those in attendance absent in spirit. More than likely, a number of key players are missing in body too, because what would an international friendly be without a raft of call-offs? It’s a hollow spectacle.

Indeed, friendlies have long been the bane of the international circuit; the thing that more than anything turns fans towards the club game and away from their national teams. Now, UEFA wants to eradicate this.

They want to make meaningless friendlies played in the vacuum of disinterested apathy a thing of the past. Enter the UEFA Nations League.

This is the ploy of European football’s governing body to give international football some fresh momentum, essentially adding another competition to bridge the gap between the end of the World Cup and the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

And so while there may have been a heap of international friendlies to be played this week - the first international break of the new season - now we will witness the birth of a new tournament.

But will the UEFA Nations League be taken seriously as a competition? Will countries look at these fixtures as little more than glorified friendlies in the same way clubs look at summer tournaments like the International Champions Cup? Or will they be seen as competitive games alongside the qualification campaigns?

The Stakes are Higher

In a sense, these UEFA Nations League games will be qualifiers in their own right. There are four Euro 2020 spots up for grabs through the new competition, with only 20 of 24 teams coming from the usual qualification process. The rest will be made up from a new play-off system formed by results in the UEFA Nations League.

There are four tiers, determined by ranking, and there will be a Euro 2020 play-off for every one of those tiers right down to the bottom one in League D. This means that one of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kosovo and the Faroe Islands will make it to the group stages of Euro 2020. And this is where the UEFA Nations League will live or die.

Harry Kane is England's captain and star striker

For bigger countries, like England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain - the teams who make up the top tier - the UEFA Nations League might not offer much of an incentive given that they are almost guaranteed their place at Euro 2020 through the conventional qualification process.

They will likely look at these games as opportunities to rotate and blood new players, which isn’t much different to the way they saw international friendlies.

But for smaller nations, countries who find themselves scrambling for a route to a major tournament, the UEFA Nations League offers another way, an alternative path. Scotland, for instance, will surely take it seriously.

The Tartan Army haven’t made the trip to a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, but the UEFA Nations League means they are four winnable games away from the Euro 2020 play-offs.

The tiered system, which splits the UEFA Nations League into four sections, with four different groups within those four tiers, means teams will face other teams of a similar stature. There will be no David versus Goliath contests. For all below the top tier, who already form the elite and set the agenda, this is a golden opportunity.

Unfortunately for UEFA, the bigger countries are the ones that set the narrative of a competition. If England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain see these games as glorified friendlies, then that perception will seep into the wider consciousness.

The Europa League provides an example of this. The big countries don’t care and so that shapes the portrayal of the tournament as a whole.

Will the major nations take the competition seriously?

Of course, much like the Europa League, the offer of a qualification spot for the winners (or four winners in the UEFA Nations League’s case) gives the tournament a much-needed purpose. This is what the International Champions Cup lacks in the club game - it pits the biggest and best teams directly against each other, but the absence of context in the wider sense robs it of an edge.

UEFA’s plan to give the Nations League's four Euro 2020 qualification spots was controversial, especially among those who already believe the European Championships is bloated with subpar teams, but it could be the thing that gives their new competition life.

Whether by design or not, by grouping the elite together to draw more eyes to the international game, UEFA have created a competition that has its heart and soul in what happens further down the footballing ladder.

Platini's Legacy

The definition of the UEFA Nations League won’t be found in the game to be played between England and Spain at Wembley on Saturday. Instead, it will be found in games like the one between Kazakhstan and Georgia on Thursday, or Romania v Montenegro on Friday.

The point could be made that this whole thing was merely a political ploy by former UEFA president Michel Platini, who back in 2011, when the implementation of the Nations League was first discussed, wanted to solidify his support base among some of the smaller nations within the confederation.

Throwing four Euro 2020 places their way earned him their favour before scandal forced him out of the governing body.

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But now that it’s here, the UEFA Nations League will face the test of public perception and popularity.

The success or failure of this competition won’t be decided by the suits who sit around UEFA’s executive table, but by the fans who will, or won’t, turn up to games, and even by the players who may or may not resist the temptation to pull out of squads as they made a habit of for international friendlies.

To the layman, the UEFA Nations League is an overly-convoluted competition, adopting a format that can be difficult to truly grasp.

But football fans often focus only on what is in front of them and now in the place of the international friendlies vacuum there is at least something laced with competitive spirit. Just remember to look beyond the elite. That’s where the good stuff will be.

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