The UEFA Nations League Explained

The 54 UEFA members recently passed a unanimous vote to launch a new tournament called the UEFA Nations League from 2018 onwards.  The intention of the tournament is to replace meaningless international friendlies with some form of competitive football, with the aim of boosting interest from supporters and commercial partners alike.  The tournament is explained at some length on the UEFA website, but I hope to make things a bit clearer by taking you through how it will work in practice.

The format has not been completely finalised yet, but the plan is to split the countries into 4 large groups based on their UEFA coefficients (or some other ranking) and then to further subdivide these groups into leagues containing 3 or 4 teams.  There will be promotion and relegation between the four levels at the end of each campaign, while the four group winners in the top league will compete in a “Final Four” tournament to decide the overall champions.  In addition to being a standalone tournament, this would also provide nations with a second opportunity to qualify for the European Championships (and possibly the World Cup).

It’s much easier to follow things by looking at exactly how the tournament will work in practice, so that’s what I’ll do here.  This will be based on the current UEFA coefficients and standings – obviously things will have changed in that respect four years down the line, but it should give an idea of how it all works.  Some details have not yet been fully explained by UEFA yet, so where that’s the case I’ll make a best guess about how things will happen.


Nations Cup Group Allocation

The 54 sides will be split into four groups of varying sizes.  It appears from the UEFA site that the top two groups will have 12 teams, the third group will have 14 teams and the bottom group will have 16 teams.  The teams will presumably be allocated to those groups based on their positions in the UEFA coefficient table (which is currently used to seed the European Championship qualifiers).

Based on the current rankings, the four divisions would be as follows:

Group 1 (12 teams): Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ukraine, France, Croatia.

Group 2 (12 teams): Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Serbia, Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Norway.

Group 3 (14 teams): Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Scotland, Finland, Latvia, Wales, Bulgaria, Estonia, Belarus, Iceland.

Group 4 (16 teams): Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania, Moldova, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar.


Each group will then be split up into smaller leagues.  In Groups 1 and 2, the teams would be split into 4 groups of 3.  In Group 3, there will be 2 groups of 3 and 2 groups of 4.  In Group 4 there will be 4 groups of 4. UEFA have yet to make it clear exactly how the make-up of these leagues will be decided, but I assume that it will be a simple seeded draw.  Initially, the seeding will presumably be based on the UEFA coefficients, but in future tournaments it could instead be based on the league positions in the previous Nations League.

Assuming that is the case, the groups could look something like this:



Nations Cup Tournament

The sides in each group will face each other home and away between September and November 2018.  There are six matchdays in total, so the countries in groups of 3 will have two free matchdays in which they can play friendlies against non-European sides (or another European team who are also free).

In order to make it more like a “real life” example, I have simulated outcomes for each individual group with weights based on UEFA coefficients (an imperfect measure, but the best I have).  This means that nations with higher coefficients were more likely to win their group, but it left open the possibility of upsets.  This is more helpful than simply assuming everything will go by seeding because it allows me to more easily explore the European Championship qualification aspect later.

Here’s how the simulated groups finished:


Based on this outcome, the Final Four tournament in June 2019 would feature England, Italy, Ukraine and Germany.  Meanwhile, France, Croatia, Spain and Greece would be relegated from Group 1 and would be replaced by Israel, Belgium, Slovenia and Denmark.  Promotion and relegation between Groups 2, 3 and 4 would work in the same way.  This format should allow lots of movement between the groups – even the best teams could find themselves relegated out of the top group with just a couple of dodgy results.


European Championship

The European Championship qualification will then kick off in March 2019, and will be played over 10 matchdays, finishing in November 2019.  The countries will be divided into 10 groups – 4 groups of 6 and 6 groups of 5, with seeding based on the UEFA coefficient as normal.

Again, I simulated a draw based on the current coefficients:


Every side will face every other side in their group home and away and the top two from each group will qualify for the European Championships.  However, unlike during the current set up, the remaining places will not be allocated via a play-off of third place sides, but instead via a set of play-offs based on the Nations Cup finishes.

Here are my simulated group finishes, again using a weighting system based on the UEFA coefficient:


The 20 sides highlighted in yellow have all sealed their places at Euro 2020.


Nations League Play-offs

The remaining 4 places at Euro 2020 will be decided by the Nations League play-offs, with one side qualifying from each group.  Within each group, the 4 play-off spots will go to the highest placed sides who have not already qualified for the Euros.  These 4 teams will play semi-finals and then a final (all as one-off matches rather than two-legged ties) in March 2020 and the winners will qualify for the European Championships.

If we look at the tables for each of the Nations League divisions from earlier, and highlight the already qualified sides in yellow then we can see how these play-offs will work.


In Group 1, Ukraine are the only league winners who did not qualify for the Euros, and would take their place in the play-offs.  They would be joined by Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were the only second placed side.  The final two spots will go to whichever two sides out of France, Croatia and Greece had the best league record.  Therefore the Group 1 play-offs might see Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and France come together to play for a single spot at the Euros.

In Group 2, there are only 4 sides who have not qualified for Euro 2020 through the traditional qualifying route.  Therefore all 4 of these sides (Denmark, Serbia, Sweden & Turkey) will face off in the play-offs for the spot at the Euros.  Incidentally, the explanation on the UEFA website suggests that if there was a case where there were fewer than 4 sides who had not already qualified, the play-off spots would go to sides from a lower division, though the exact mechanism for doing that is not fully explained.

For Group 3, the play-off places would go to league winners Finland and Scotland, and then to the two sides with the best records out of Belarus, Iceland and Wales.  Presumably the results against the fourth placed side would be removed when comparing the records of teams in different sized groups.

Finally, in Group 4 we will see all four league winners progress to the play-offs.  That would mean that Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland and Georgia would get to play-off for a spot at the European Championships.  This is obviously slightly controversial because it means a “lesser” side will qualify for the tournament, but the counterargument for that would be that the extra exposure and the tournament experience may benefit the nation in the longer term.


Will It Work?

I think the idea of replacing friendly matches with competitive fixtures is a great one, and I think the concept of an international league with promotion and relegation is really good in theory.  For a country like Scotland, it is likely to be a fairly interesting concept, because with the cut-throat nature of the promotion and relegation we are likely to yo-yo around between Groups 2 and 3, with some infrequent visits to the top and bottom groups.

The addition of the European Championship qualifying spot ensures that countries are likely to take the tournament seriously – it could be crucial to have a fall-back option if you mess up in qualifying.  The way the play-off places are distributed appears to favour a big fish in a small pond – a strong nation who finds themselves relegated into Group 3 or Group 4 would have an easier route to qualification than if they were in a higher division.  However it is worth noting that the sides who do qualify in this way are also likely to be promoted for the following campaign and thus will not be able to take advantage of this route again.

The qualification system works nicely for Euro 2020, which has no single host.  However it would have to be tweaked for future tournaments if the host nation(s) received an automatic qualifying spot.  It has also been mooted that a couple of Europe’s World Cup places could be allocated via this system, though that would require approval from FIFA.  Exactly how this would work has not been made public yet, but it was suggested that the World Cup route would be for sides in the top two groups only.  With the Nations League not starting until 2018, the first World Cup which could feasibly use such a system would be 2022, so there is plenty of time to come up with something.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about what has been announced so far.  There are a few issues which will have to be addressed, but if they can do that properly the tournament should provide an additional source of competitive international football.  The bigger nations have another trophy to play for, the middle sized nations (like Scotland) have plenty of meaningful matches in battles for promotion and relegation, and the minnows get to have a crack at the European Championships.