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What is the UEFA Nations League and how does it work? A complete guide

Craig Burley and the FC crew reflect on Germany's inability to close out games and the fighting spirit of the Netherlands in their comeback draw.

The group stage of the very first UEFA Nations League has been completed. Here's a guide for all you need to know about the new competition.

What is the UEFA Nations League?

It is a competition between the 55 member nations of UEFA, created because "UEFA and its associations wanted more sporting meaning in national team football, with associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams."

So this means there are no more international friendlies?

Certainly through 2019 there will be very few for European countries. Euro 2020 qualifying takes place in March, June, September, October and November with two games each month, so all but one Pot 1 nation will not have a free date for friendlies unless they slot one in over the summer. 

There can be no doubt that the competition has been a success, immeasurably more engaging than international friendlies. It has caught the imagination of the public, and produced some stunning matches. 

What format does it take?

The 55 nations are split into four "Leagues." The strongest nations are in League A, and the weakest in League D.

League A and B: Four groups of three nations (12 teams)
League C: Three groups of four nations, and one group of three (15)
League D: Four groups of four nations (16)

Teams within each group will play each other home and away.

What about promotion and relegation?

Yes. The winners of each group in Leagues B, C and D move up, while the nations bottom of Leagues A, B and C drop down for the next edition of the Nations League.

Group 1 of League C only has three teams in it, while Groups 2, 3 and 4 each have four nations. Therefore the nation that finishes bottom of Group 1 is not automatically relegated. The third-placed team across all four groups with the worst record will be relegated. For the purposes of this calculation, results against the fourth-placed team are removed for Groups 2-4.

Will there actually be UEFA Nations League champions?

Yes. The four group winners from League A -- England, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland -- will playoff in knockout format (semifinals, third-place match and final) in June 2019, with the games being played in Portugal (Porto and Guimaraes). Italy, Poland and Portugal all submitted bids, and Portugal automatically hosted as finalists. Only nations in League A can go on to be overall Nations League champions.

Finals draw: Dec. 3, 2018 
Finals: June 5-9, 2019

It is important to note that the UEFA Nations League finals are not the same as the Euro 2020 qualification playoffs for League A. If you win the UEFA Nations League finals this does not carry an automatic place at Euro 2020. It is a standalone competition. 

Why take the Nations League seriously?

Firstly, it 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.

So what happens with Euro 2020 qualifying?

A few things. First, rather than starting in September 2018 as it usually would, it is pushed back to March 2019 through to November 2019.

Secondly, as stated above, the final positions and records from the UEFA Nations League were used to rank nations for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw, which takes place on Dec. 2, 2018. 

Pot UNL: England, Portugal, Switzerland, Netherlands
Pot 1: Belgium, Croatia, France, Italy, Poland, Spain
Pot 2: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, Wales
Pot 3: Bulgaria, Finland, Israel, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, Turkey
Pot 4: Albania, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia
Pot 5: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Moldova
Pot 6: Andorra, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, San Marino

This is where it gets a little more complicated -- so stay with us. 

The qualifying draw 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 (the reason for being in a separate UNL pot), enabling June 2019 to be left free for the UEFA Nations League finals.

Now it gets even more complicated...

How do the Euro 2020 qualifying playoffs work?

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 UEFA Nations League. The winners of the four groups in each League will, by right, go into the playoffs.

However, 20 nations will have already booked a place in the finals via regular qualifying, and many of these are likely to be UEFA Nations League group winners too, so it will be the best-ranked nation in each league that has not yet qualified who enters the playoffs.

It is important to make clear that if, for instance, the winners of a group have already qualified it is not the second-placed team in that same group that automatically takes the playoff place. It goes to the best-ranked nation in the League. So it will be the one of the four runners-up with the most points. Or, if all runners-up have qualified, the third-placed team with the best record.

The ranked order in which teams will be granted a League playoff, should they need it, is as follows: 

League A: England, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Germany, Iceland

League B: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Austria, Wales, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Turkey, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland

League C: Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland, Bulgaria, Israel, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania

League D: Georgia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus, Luxembourg, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Gibraltar, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Malta, San Marino

It is highly likely that most, if not all, automatic qualifiers for Euro 2020 will come from Leagues A and B, 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

However, a group winner cannot be used to fill up a higher draw pot. This is most crucial in League C as Scotland, Norway, Serbia and Finland are protected from being used to fill up the League A or B playoff route. That could, however, be the fate for Bulgaria, Israel, Hungary and Romania.

If every team in League A qualifies automatically, we are likely to see the League A playoffs contested by League C teams as the best-ranked nations not to have an automatic or playoff place.

If both League A and League B have playoff spaces, UEFA will conduct a draw to decide which League path the additional playoff teams slot into. 

The playoffs will be two one-legged semifinals and a final for a place at Euro 2020. 

Hope you're still with us after all that.

Important dates:

UEFA Euro 2020 playoff draw: Nov. 22, 2019 (to determine home team in final)
UEFA Euro 2020 playoffs: March 26-31, 2020

Will this make any difference? 

Yes it will. 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. Scotland have not been at a finals since the 1998 World Cup, while Norway last featured at Euro 2000.

When is the next UEFA Nations League?

It is due to begin in September 2020, with new divisions based on promotion and relegation.

NEW LEAGUES FOR 2021

League A: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, England, France, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine

League B: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Wales

League C: Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey

League D: Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, San Marino, Slovenia

Will the UEFA Nations League affect World Cup qualification?

There is no information at present, although it would appear unlikely. With only 13 places available for European nations, compared to 24 at the Euros, it is difficult to see how UEFA could use the playoff system, especially in relation to teams in Leagues C and D.

Also, FIFA is almost certain to use its own World Ranking to formulate qualifying draw pots at the time of the draw rather than Nations League places.

What does this mean for the 2020 edition?

If there is no qualification prize on offer for the teams in Leagues C and D, and to an extent League B, there is nothing to be gained by performing well and earning promotion. That would, for instance, see a League C promoted to League B for the Euro 2024 qualification cycle and make their possible route to the finals much more difficult. 

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