The Nations League was a fairly controversial creation when it was introduced by UEFA in 2018 but it quickly won people over. It has essentially replaced most international friendlies, providing a more competitive environment for national sides to compete away from major tournaments. In addition, it also produces more “big” games between the top sides and means we see far fewer one-sided mismatches. In addition, it can provide a route into the European Championships and World Cup, this potential prize adding to the competitive nature of the tournament.
Given it is an international tournament the fixtures are far less frequent than we would see in club football. However, on this page, we will provide tips for any upcoming games, as well as providing an outline of how this relatively new competition works. We will also look at the structure and format of the Nations League, as well as its brief history.
Upcoming Matches: Tips & Predictions
TBD - Tips are added shortly before the start of each match. Please check back nearer the time.
Nations League Structure & Format
The Nations League is more complex than your average football event and even after four years, many fans are still getting to grips with exactly how it works. It is held every two years and has three separate phases. First is the league phase, then we have the finals for the top four teams, plus two-legged relegation play-offs.
The dates of the various “rounds” vary and that has especially been the case, as with so much of the football calendar, for the 2022/23 Nations League due to the eccentric scheduling of the 2022 World Cup. Prior to that, we had further disruption due to Euro 2020 being played in 2021 and all the issues associated with the events of 2020 and 2021.
In general, however, the league phase runs over a brief period from September to November of even-numbered years. Finals and relegation deciders normally take place in the following June, meaning we crown a new Nations League champion every two years in odd-numbered years. The current Nations League will actually stretch through to 2024 but before all that, let’s look at the basics.
All UEFA nations take part, meaning there are 55 teams at present. These teams are divided into four leagues, this division initially being based on rankings and recent results. The best sides were placed into League A, moving down to B, C and D. In the current structure of the Nations League, there are four sub-groups within each of the top three leagues, each of these groups featuring four sides.
That means, for example, in 2022/23, England were in Group A3 (League A, Group 3), whilst Scotland were in B1 and Northern Ireland were in Group C2. In the bottom league, there are just two groups, D1 and D2, with the former boasting four nations and the latter just three. With 13 groups of four and one of three, we now have a home for all 55 UEFA nations.
The format within these groups is very standard too, with nations playing each other home and away, meaning six games each for most sides. The top nations in each group in Leagues B, C and D are promoted, with the four group winners from League A going through to the Nations League finals. Equally the bottom sides from Leagues A and B are also relegated whilst, naturally enough there is no relegation from League D. So far, so straightforward.
However, with only two sides being promoted from D, the four bottom sides in League C face a play-out (yes, “out” … no idea why!), to decide which two drop down to League D. The best-ranked fourth-placed team meets the worst (based on performance in their groups), with the second and third teams meeting, over two legs. The two teams that lose on aggregate are demoted to League D whilst the victors retain their place in C.
Nations League Finals
The winners of the four League A groups meet in the Finals, again the dates of these varying. Each of these teams can apply to host the finals, with UEFA’s Executive Committee deciding who gets that honour. A draw determines which sides will play each other in the semis (all ties during the final are just over one match), with the winners meeting in the final to decide the Nations League champion, and the losers playing in the third-place play-off (ah good, back to play-offs for this!).
World Cup & Euros Qualification
The current tournament (2022/23) is a small part of the potential qualification process for Euro 2024 in the same way that past Nations Leagues have been linked to either the following World Cup or Euros. Exactly how this process works has changed, with the Nations League more closely linked to the Euros (also run by UEFA) than the FIFA World Cup.
The precise details of how qualification for Euro 2024 will work are very complex and made even more so by the probable exclusion of Russia and possible absence of Ukraine (we’ll leave aside the fact that nobody will be able to afford fuel to travel or electricity to power floodlights and who knows what else might crop up between now and then!).
The 54 teams will be split into 10 groups and these will see 20 teams qualify, along with hosts Germany. There will be six groups of five teams and four with six, with the four teams in the 2022/23 Nations League final being put into groups with just five teams to create space for the Finals. The top two from each of the 10 groups will qualify for the Euros in Germany. That means there will be three places available through a secondary play-off route.
This will be open to 12 sides from the 2022/23 Nations League, with these being split into three groups, referred to as paths, with four nations in each. If, by some miracle, none of the 12 group winners from Leagues A, B and C had qualified via the main route, these 12 teams would form the play-off nations.
However, typically many of these will have already qualified and so their spots drop to the next highest-ranked nation in the same League. If there are not 12 non-qualified sides then places can be given to sides from League D (the best-ranked group winner). Once the four sides in each path are determined, they meet in single-legged semis, hosted by the highest-ranked sides (first hosts fourth and second hosts third), with the home side for the final determined by a draw. Each of the three winners from the separate paths earn spots at the Euros and yes, it really is as simple as all that. Almost.
Ranking of Nations League Sides
The Nations League overall rankings are used for a variety of things, including deciding the seeding for the draw for the groups in Euros qualifying. They are also used to allocate play-off places and sometimes to separate sides who are otherwise tied.
The 16 teams in League A automatically gain a ranking of between one and 16, with League B running from 17 to 32 and so on. As such a nation that has dropped into League D can not be ranked any higher than 49th. Within their band, nations are ranked according to where they finished in their group, first and foremost.
So the group winners from League A will be ranked first to fourth and the sides that finished second will be fifth to eighth and so on, down to the sides who were bottom, and thus relegated, being ranked 13th to 16th. To separate the four group winners, group seconds and so on, points, goal difference, goals scored and various other factors, right down to disciplinary points, are used.
Nations League History
As said, the Nations League was first played in 2018 and ran from September to November for the league phase, with the finals in June. It was created, following discussions that began in 2013, or even earlier, to try and avoid international friendlies being uncompetitive in two senses. First, that nations didn’t care about them and would play very experimental sides, with games at a slow pace. Second, that we often saw clear mismatches and games that did not excite the public.
Of course, commercial reasons underpinned much of the thinking, with the desire to create a product (remember when football used to be a sport, not a business or a commodity?) that would attract more lucrative TV and sponsorship deals central. Initially Leagues A and B had 12 teams, League C had 14 and League D was the only symmetrical, four-groups-of-four, one.
For the 2020/21 Nations League we moved to the structure we now see, with the top three leagues having 16 teams and Group D being far smaller with just seven. That is the only really major change to occur during the brief history of the Nations League, though s said we have seen a lot of alterations to the calendar for various unusual reasons.
Finals hosts, Portugal, won the first ever Nations League in 2018/19, beating Netherlands, who had beaten England in the semi. Gareth Southgate’s side did finish third though, getting past Switzerland on penalties in the third-place match.
The 2020/21 tournament saw a high-class quartet make the finals, with Belgium finishing fourth, home side Italy third, Spain second and France crowned champions. As things stand there is all to play for in the 2022/23 competition, though not for England or Wales who are out of the finals running after just four of six matches.
Reception & Future Plans
Despite criticism, fans, players and managers warmed to the Nations League very quickly. The higher quality of the games is a big part of that, with England playing Italy and Germany twice each, for example, during the 2022/23 tournament. Whilst managers still experiment, the games are certainly more competitive and a second-string Germany is still a far more enticing prospect than a first-choice Tunisia, Australia or Paraguay (with all due respect to those and other similar nations).
Indeed, so successful has the competition been, that there are plans to expand it. In 2021 a UEFA representative said that the 10 South American members of CONMEBOL would enter for the 2024/25 Nations League.
Details are limited at this time but it is believed that the top six teams from the continent will enter League A, with four going into League B. Part of the reason for this is to improve links between the two federations but also, primarily, to try and hold off any move to make the World Cup every two years.