Ahead of this summer’s inaugural Nations League finals in Portugal, we look at what has made the competition an instant success, and what winning the tournament will mean.
Fifty three years of hurt is just two games away from finally coming to an end. Having beaten Spain and World Cup finalists Croatia to reach the first-ever Nations League finals, England are just two wins away from that first major trophy success since 1966.
Standing in their way are hosts Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland, in a whirlwind of a finals format, where that title glory can be achieved in just four days.
But how did we get here? Is the Nations League adding further burden to our weary stars? What does winning the tournament achieve? Here we run the rule over international football’s newest star. What is the purpose of the Nations League?
Remember the appeal of those international friendlies when Sven-Goran Eriksson would make 10 changes at half time as a half-empty Wembley would be forced through a half-hearted friendly draw, or Portugal players lined up to put Gibraltar to the sword in 2017? No, me neither.
International friendlies had become tedious in the extreme. Coaches the world over were using them to experiment with players, new systems, becoming, in essence, training matches, often in the most stifled of atmospheres.
In need of a major shakeup, UEFA acted and introduced the Nations League, to initial ridicule. Did international football really need another tournament? After just one Nations League qualification campaign, the doubters have been well and truly silenced.
The dramatic manner of Germany’s relegation to League B at the hands of the Netherlands, who had come back from the dead in a group that included France, Switzerland’s barnstorming late turnaround against Belgium to seal their place in the finals, as well as England’s thrilling victory over Croatia on a day when finals qualification and relegation were possible in equal measure, are just a few examples of how the Nations League enthralled audiences in the short period since its inception last September.
And that is just qualification. With the finals to come, expect more thrills and spills, without long delays between games.
How did qualification work?
When you talk of elite teams being pitted against each other, it is often to the detriment of those less high profile sides – see rumours of a pending club ‘super league’ – but the Nations League has the opposite goals in mind.
All 55 UEFA nations were split up into four leagues – A to D – depending on their coefficient scores, and then groups drawn from teams ranked at each level.
Promotion and relegation has come into effect, meaning that the bottom team from each group drops down a league for the Nations League competition in 2020, due to start after Euro 2020.
Germany, after their relegation, will therefore compete in League B, as will Croatia, while Bosnia, Denmark, Sweden and Ukraine will move up to League A.
What does success in the finals mean?
The winners of the League A groups – Portugal, England, Netherlands and Switzerland – will compete for the inaugural Nations League prize in Portugal this month.
Portugal take on Switzerland in the first semi-final, before England face the Netherlands a day later in Guimaraes.
There is then a third-placed play-off three days later, with the final taking place that evening.
Simple as that. No long, drawn out format, just a quick two games to become champions, with no long distances between stadiums for fans to negotiate their way around.
It is important to note, the Nations League is a standalone tournament – the winners will not qualify for Euro 2020 automatically. The benefits come in the form of the trophy, with the effects on the finalists ranking for Euro 2020 qualification already in the bag.
How does it impact Euro 2020 qualification?
Firstly, the Nations League has decided each nation's ranking for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw - so 10 of the 12 nations in League A were guaranteed to be in Pot 1. The two relegated teams with the worst Nations League record - Germany and Poland - were placed in Pot 2.
The qualifying draw for Euro 2020 will create five groups of five teams and five groups of six teams. The four group winners from League A will be drawn into a group of five, enabling June 2019 to be left free for the Nations League finals.
Here is where it gets a little complicated. In qualifying for Euro 2016, the eight best third-placed teams from regular qualifying went into playoffs.
For Euro 2020, the playoff teams will be plucked from the Nations League. The winners of the four groups in each League will, by right, go into the playoffs.
It is highly likely that most, if not all, automatic qualifiers for Euro 2020 will come from Leagues A and B, who will have qualified via the usual European Championship qualification route, after all, there are 20 places and the 24 strongest teams are in these leagues. Therefore, it effectively means that the teams who finish first AND second in League C are going to be guaranteed a minimum of a playoff.
Most importantly, it's giving nations who never previously had a real shot of qualifying a chance to make Euro 2020.
Take a look at the nations in the League D playoffs: Georgia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Belarus. One of these nations is guaranteed to qualify for Euro 2020. It's a similar story for League C, with Finland never having reached a finals tournament -- they now have a guaranteed playoff.