GENEVA (AP) Soccer’s newest competition kicks off this week in Europe with few knowing all the details of a complex format.
The UEFA Nations League certainly will get off to a good start: Germany hosts World Cup champion France on Thursday, England faces Spain on Saturday, Portugal plays Italy on Monday and Spain takes on Croatia on Tuesday.
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In simple terms, the competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation, and produces a champion at a mini-tournament next June.
It will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.
Because of the Nations League, traditional qualifying for Euro 2020 will start in March instead of the usual September following a World Cup.
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UEFA believes all its member federations are getting something they like. Top-ranked nations want to play each other; the middle teams want winnable competitive games; low-ranked nations want hope of reaching major tournaments.
The North American soccer region now has its own version, while UEFA also designed a global version for about 220 teams which FIFA already has plans to adopt.
WHAT IS THE NATIONS LEAGUE?
A group stage involving 55 teams playing in four levels – Leagues A, B, C and D – from this week until November; a Final Four mini-tournament in June 2019 for the group winners of League A; playoffs in March 2020 in all four tiers to fill the last four Euro 2020 qualifying places.
The last detail is the incentive for European soccer’s smaller teams.
At least one League D team – possibly Azerbaijan, Belarus or Luxembourg, for instance – will qualify for Euro 2020.
WHY CREATE IT?
Few people seemed to like international friendlies which “really don’t interest anybody,” then-UEFA president Michel Platini said when launching the Nations League in March 2014.
Plus, the biennial format should be good for business.
“These matches are relevant for every single market so you optimize in each market,” UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein has said.
UEFA hopes promotion of group winners and relegation of last-place teams up and down the four Nations League tiers will keep it dynamic.
Groups of three or four teams play home and away on the usual national-team match dates protected by FIFA.
Teams in the top-two tiers – League A and B, each with four groups of three nations – still have dates free for friendlies against teams like Brazil and Argentina.
Lower-ranked teams are all booked up in the four-team groups of Leagues C and D.
The four group winners from League A advance to a Final Four to decide the Nations League champion.
The semifinals, third-place game and final will be played in one nation from June 5-9. The host will be the winner of the Italy-Poland-Portugal group.
EURO 2020 QUALIFYING
The Nations League pushes back Euro 2020 qualifying into 2019, and affects the 10 groups to be drawn on Dec. 2 in Dublin.
Top-tier teams going to the Final Four must be in one of the five smaller groups of five teams. That clears their June schedule for the mini-tournament.
The other five Euro 2020 qualifying groups have six teams, using all the FIFA dates to play 10 games from next March through November.
The top two teams in each qualifying group automatically advance to Euro 2020. The remaining four places in the 24-team lineup will be decided in Nations League playoffs.
EURO 2020 PLAYOFFS
In March 2020, each Nations League tier will have a four-team playoff bracket with the winner advancing to Euro 2020.
Playoffs will be for teams that failed to earn a direct Euro 2020 entry through the qualifying groups. Playoff entries will go to Nations League group winners, or teams with the next-best record.
The League A playoffs could be filled by League B teams because most top-tier teams will advance through the traditional qualifying format.
The Euro 2020 draw will be in April, just a few weeks before the tournament begins in Rome.
Top European clubs who liked to keep star players out of national team squads for friendlies are not delighted with extra competitive games on the calendar.
Even if national teams are not desperate to win the Nations League, the threat of relegation should mean strong teams are fielded.
Brazil, Argentina and other non-European nations also have fewer options for lucrative friendlies, especially in 2019.