The call for an end to meaningless international friendlies for European nations was parroted for many years, before UEFA finally paid attention and created the Nations League.
Those involved in football have long believed that international exhibition matches are near-useless exercises that taught coaches little and left fans feeling short-changed.
Friendly match-ups between England and Spain or France and Germany may look great on paper, but in reality, they provide little in the way of a spectacle, with nothing riding on the game and players more interested in getting back to their clubs in one piece.
Fewer Meaningless Friendlies
The problem with friendly matches stems from the fact that few conclusions can be drawn from the performances and they do not help teams to prepare adequately for upcoming competitive fixtures.
A national team only gets a short time together so spending it preparing to face a weakened German or Spanish side when their next competitive match is against Sweden or Italy can feel like a waste of time.
It also limits the time the team can spend working on new formations and tactical exercises on the training pitch.
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With such limited time to spend with their squads, most coaches would prefer to spend it in a training camp where they can work on specifics ahead of a tournament, or at least play a competitive match where there is something at stake.
Back in the late 1990s, former Manchester United youth team coach Eric Harrison suggested ditching friendlies for dedicated training camps, but the idea was seen as too radical at the time.
Creating a Nations League offers a better all-around solution as it still keeps fans engaged with the team between major tournaments, while giving sides a taste of competitive action.
More Competition For Nations At ALL Levels
The initial Nations League matches might still feel like friendlies as teams adjust to the idea of competitive international breaks. But by attaching extra significance to games that would otherwise be seen as damp squibs, that should change over time.
Most regional bodies are in agreement that the new system will provide improved sporting competition; the overall aim being to improve the quality of international football and raise the standard of lower-ranked teams.
The tournament also fills the summer void between major tournaments by allowing the top teams to compete in the UEFA Nations League Finals, with a top-level trophy at stake.
For middle and lower-ranked teams, the UEFA Nations League offers an alternative qualification route to the European Championships, with the bottom 16 guaranteed a slot in the 24-team quadrennial event.
The consultation process for the league began at a strategy meeting in Cyprus back in 2011, with the final format agreed at a conference in Astana three years later.
The only people that might still have a problem with the new system are club managers, who now face a situation where their players will be involved in competitive encounters during international breaks.
This could increase the risk of injury and affect a player’s fitness at club level. However, most top-level coaches accept that the current system is not working.
Will The Importance Of International Competition Be Diluted?
With the expansion of the European Championships (or Euros), more lower-ranked teams will get the chance to feature at the showpiece event. And the structure of the Nations League means those teams will play more matches against rivals of a similar level.
This balance provides a better competitive environment for those teams and should help them develop beyond their historic levels.
Previously, such teams would have been drawn in matches they had little or no chance of winning, or even drawing. Little is learnt from these games and zero progress is made.
Now, those teams will have a genuine chance to win games. This gives them more freedom to experiment tactically and take a positive approach to fixtures. This can boost confidence as well as technical ability.
As lowered-ranked teams improve, the overall standard of international football should be raised.
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The benefits were clear in the opening round of matches, as Armenia and Lichtenstein both recorded wins, lowly Andorra secured a rare draw in their game against Kazakhstan, newly inducted Kosovo grabbed a win and a draw from their first two games, and Malta picked up a point against Azerbaijan.
What’s more, the new tournament works alongside existing competitions, so it is unlikely to dilute the importance of the traditional events.
The European Championships and World Cup will still be seen as the more prestigious events, while the Nations League will offer an additional chance of silverware.
Everyone involved benefits from having a fixed schedule and coaches and players will now have a positive target to focus on during international breaks.
The league will also act as a bridge between the main events, maintaining the competitive interest while also generating greater income through solidarity and bonus fees.
Has It Been Tried Before?
Since 1996, the Oceania Football Confederation has organised the OFC Nations Cup. Initially a biannual event, it is now held every four years and since 2010, has formed part of the World Cup qualifying campaign for the region.
However, the lack of competitive nations means top sides must still play friendly matches in order to test themselves against top-level opposition.
Because of the different structure and the smaller numbers of teams involved, it is hard to use the OFC Nations Cup as an indicator of how successful the UEFA Nations League might be.
Are Other Federations Doing The Same?
In 2017, the member associations of CONCACAF, which covers North, Central America and the Caribbean Islands established the CONCACAF Nations League.
This 40-nation tournament is similar in structure to the Nations League. The league will also give teams a chance to qualify for CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The fact that other Federations are following suit suggests that this will be the standard approach going forward.
Is This The End For Friendly Matches?
With some of the top teams drawn in groups of three and the fixtures spread out over ten months, there will still be room for the odd friendly game.
Coaches will be able to use these games to test their players against teams from other continents or to prepare for upcoming Nations League fixtures.
However, friendlies will no longer be seen as central to the formation and development of the national team and no one will expect much from these matches.
And with the next competitive match never too far away, international breaks will no longer feel like such an intrusion upon the domestic campaign.
A Boost For National Team Coaches
For national team coaches, having extra competitive matches will give them more opportunities to make their mark on the team.
They will play against full-strength opposition of roughly the same level and can implement formations and tactical plans in the same way they would for a tournament game.
This means that the whole philosophy and identity of the national team can be established between major competitions so they arrive at the top events in the best shape.