By Simon Ward
Uefa has claimed that its new Nations League, approved by its members today, will help to raise the profile of international soccer as it will supersede friendly matches increasingly seen as an irrelevance in the modern game.
As expected, the 54 associations that make up European soccer’s governing body today approved the creation of the Uefa Nations League at the Uefa Congress in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The first competition will be linked to the qualifying competition for the 2020 European Championships, giving teams an extra route by which to reach the finals.
The format has yet to be finalised but it is envisaged that the competition would replace most international friendlies and that Europe’s national teams would be divided into four large divisions based on rankings, with promotion and relegation between the divisions.
Friendlies have become increasingly marginalised as club soccer has grown in importance, and Uefa will be hoping that adding a new competitive element to international soccer will prove more attractive to fans, the media and the participants.
Speaking at a news conference today, Uefa president Michel Platini said: "The friendlies really don’t interest anybody, neither the audience at large, neither the journalists nor the players."
Wolfgang Niersbach, the German chairman of Uefa’s National Teams Competition Committee, had earlier endorsed the proposal, saying: "We accept and respect that all Uefa member associations have agreed to create a new competition. This is a big step for national teams in Europe and we hope that fans will support the new format."
Uefa has already sought to boost the international game by introducing the ‘week of football’ concept for the qualifying competitions for the European Championships and World Cup, with matches to be played over six days and commercial rights centralised under its auspices.
This new format comes into play for the qualifying competition for Euro 2016, to be held in France.
The first Nations League would run alongside the qualifying competition for Euro 2020, with each division split into four pools of three or four teams, with each team playing four to six matches between September and November 2018.
The ‘final four’ competition, involving the pool winners in the top division would take place in 2019.
The play-offs for Euro 2020 would take place in March of that year and involve top teams in the Nations League which fail to reach the finals through the regular qualifying system.
Uefa has already decided that the 2020 European Championships will be held in up to 13 cities across the continent, as opposed to in one or two countries, as is traditional.
Subject to Fifa approval, it is envisaged that the Nations League could provide qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, for which the host is Qatar.
The Nations League formed part of the four-point ‘Resolution on National Team Football 2018-2022’ approved by the Uefa members today to:
- recognise the success of the European Qualifers central marketing for the period 2014-2018 and its benefits for the promotion of national team football;
- agree with the new sporting concept of European Qualifiers, Uefa Nations League and friendly matches for the period 2018-2022, within the dates foreseen by the International Match Calendar;
- support this new sporting concept and the continuation of central marketing on a similar mode currently practised for all national team matches also for the period 2018-2022; and
- underline the importance of co-operating closely with Uefa to overcome any potential legal, formal and practical issues that might arise, in particular regarding the sales of the centralised media rights in their respective country.
The European Club Association stated today that it was not opposed to the Nations League as it would not entail an increase in the total number of international matches in the calendar and would mean an end to long-haul trips to other continents for midweek friendlies.
ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said: "A positive aspect of this new concept is that our players will no longer have to travel around the world for friendly matches. I am not worried about the Champions League; it is a prime product and the Europa League as well will continue to flourish."
Uefa today approved the financial distribution model for the Euro 2016 finals, under which €301 million ($414 million) will be allocated to the 24 teams, up from the 16 at Euro 2012, with each qualifier receiving a minimum of €8 million and a maximum of €27 million, which will go to the champions, if they win all their matches.
Meanwhile, Uefa approved the distribution of €600 million of funding from its HatTrick IV programme to the 54 member associations to support their activities and development projects, including new stadia and training centres and administrative headquarters.
In a further development, the member associations have adopted an 11-point resolution on integrity in soccer aimed at dealing with issues such as match-fixing.
The resolution, which is entitled ‘European football united for the integrity of the game’, commits Uefa members to:
- educate their domestic football family by having a coherent plan for education and protection/prevention;
- harmonise their regulations (minimum standards/abolish statute of limitations;
- implement reporting systems/procedures;
- co-operate with domestic law enforcement agencies; and
- implement strong sanctions or any persons involved in match-fixing
Platini said: "We are requesting that Uefa’s member associations align themselves with Uefa – and have our full support – in order to tackle this scourge that is a real threat to the soul of our sport."
Uefa's stance has been welcomed by Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who said in a speech in Astana: "I'm very happy that Uefa is now entering in full swing the fight against match manipulation because the decisions taken by the Fifa Congress have to be implemented at national association level. This also concerns confederations."
However, Uefa and Fifa could be on a collision course over the matter of third-party ownership of players, with Platini saying today that it would introduce its own measures to outlaw the practice if Fifa did not lead the way.
Third-party ownership is particularly common in territories such as Portugal and South America, where clubs have been known to raise funds by selling a share in a player to a company or agent, which then receives a proportion of future transfer fees.
However, Platini believes that it represents a threat to the integrity of soccer and should be banned.
He said: "If Fifa fails to act, we will address this issue in our own competitions in Europe. The Uefa executive committee has already adopted a position on this issue in principle, and we will see this through. I don not want to be complicit in these practices, and at the moment I have the nasty feeling that I am."