In the days after the heartbreak, with waves of anger from that infamous night in Trinidad still crashing onto American shores, a deflating realization washed over American soccer fans. Five years of emptiness were staring them in the face.
The U.S. men’s national team won’t play another competitive match for 20 months. From a casual fans’ perspective, it won’t play a truly meaningful one for over 60. The road ahead is barren. The foreseeable future, outside of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, is bland.
But fortunately, years before American fans came to that conclusion, soccer executives around the world arrived at a similar one. They realized they had an incredibly potent product that wasn’t being sold effectively. They realized that the three years and 11 months in between men’s World Cups were a men’s international soccer wasteland. They realized that the international calendar, clogged with tiresome friendlies and forgettable qualifiers, had largely become an afterthought. And they resolved to doing something about it.
The seeds of change were sowed within UEFA. The Nations League was born in March 2014, via unanimous vote. Three-and-a-half years after its birth, before it has even taken its first steps, other confederations have come to the table. Some are ready to follow in Europe’s footsteps. They have proposed a Global Nations League that would permanently shake up international soccer.
Now the question the confederations and FIFA must answer is an agonizing one: Would the shakeup enhance the game? Or harm it?
The future of the sport rides on the answer.
So what exactly is a Nations League? We can start by understanding UEFA’s. It’s essentially a biennial, multi-tier league of national teams with promotion and relegation, and a finals tournament every odd-numbered summer. Here’s a handy visualization:
The top 12 European sides have been placed in League A, and will be drawn into four groups of three. Nations ranked 13-24 go into League B, and are subject to a similar draw. Leagues C and D are adjusted to accommodate all 55 UEFA members. The group stage consists of a double round-robin over the September, October and November international breaks. The winner of each League A group goes to the Final Four the following June. The winners of the lower-league groups are promoted. Last-place finishers are relegated.
A Global Nations League would more or less be an extension of UEFA’s version. It would revolve around an eight-team tournament – rather than four – in June 2021, 2023 and so on. The eight teams would come from Europe (3), South America (2), North/Central America (1), Africa (1) and Asia (1).
Europe, therefore, would likely restructure its top league to feature three groups of four teams. South America’s top division would likely be two groups of three. In Asia, Africa and CONCACAF, the first division would probably be one group of four.
The winners of the eight groups would go into a finals draw that would pair them in quarterfinal matchups. The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals would be a straight knockout-style tournament at a central location over one week.
The other six divisions – there would be seven in total – would then fall in line and stage their own finals on similar schedules. All 223 members of the six confederations – even those that aren’t FIFA members – would be involved. The following is all educated guesswork, but here’s how representation in each league could be divvied up:
Nations would be placed in leagues based on the FIFA Rankings, with non-FIFA members presumably going into League 7. They could then move between leagues every two years through intra-confederation promotion and relegation systems that would be tailored to fit the format.
Here’s what groups could theoretically look like if placements were based the current FIFA rankings:
It’s a lot to digest. But it’s doable. It would work. The question, of course, is whether it would work well.
THE PROS AND CONS
The obvious pro is that a Global Nations League would give every single national team more competitive games. Competitive games are, in a vacuum, undeniably more interesting than exhibitions. And they wouldn’t just be competitive because of their official designation as such. Most would be between teams of similar calibers. They would often produce entertainment and, in the top division or two, quality soccer.
There’s a concern that significance can’t be conjured from scratch. That a match, and a tournament, and a trophy can’t be imbued with import at the stroke of UEFA’s or FIFA’s magic wand. But there will be financial incentives for every confederation and member association to care. They’ll impart that on managers and players. And if Spanish and German players, or French and English players care about games, their fans will, too.
The less obvious con, however, is also that a Global Nations League would give everyone more competitive games. It’s that oversaturation is a real concept, and a worrying one.
It’s that part of the attraction of the World Cup is its scarcity. That’s a basic social psychological principle. If humans like something, they’ll value it more if there’s less of it. We savor the World Cup and lap up every last drop of it because we know, for example, that the United States likely won’t be playing Portugal, or Germany, or Belgium in a meaningful game for at least another four years. That knowledge makes the games all the more meaningful, and the occasion all the more grand.
The World Cup would still be massive with a Nations League tournament 12 months before it and 12 months after it, and with high-profile matches between continental rivals sprinkled throughout the interim. But would the Nations League tone down the anticipation and excitement of the World Cup? Probably, even if only ever so slightly. The effect would crescendo over time. And it would – will – apply to the Euros as well.
The concepts of oversaturation and scarcity would also apply to players in a physical sense. There are already growing concerns about overexertion. Friendlies, in that sense, are a necessary evil. In a strange way, it’s good that half the England squad can pull out of upcoming games against Germany and Brazil. It allows players to maintain their performance levels throughout grueling club seasons, and ultimately through the World Cup. The more competitive games they’re forced into, the more injuries, and the lower the quality and pace of play.
But the Nations League won’t really add that much more to their plates. There are other ways to curb physical burnout – to negate the harmful effects. And the World Cup will still be the World Cup. The real issue here, as always, is money.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, the success of a Global Nations League would come down to the revenue sharing system that accompanies it. If it can financially benefit most or all nations, from England to Sierra Leone to Turks and Caicos, it’s a go. And chances are it can.
The actual biggest problem with international soccer isn’t that fans don’t care about a friendly between England and Germany. It’s that Sierra Leone or Turks and Caicos can’t even play a friendly, because no company will pay them to televise it, or to place its logo around the field on advertising boards. Heck, nobody will pay them for those rights for World Cup qualifiers – all two of them – either.
In every confederation other than UEFA, a country’s soccer federation is responsible for selling media rights and sponsorships for its home qualifiers. And friendlies are a free-for-all. So if Turks and Caicos can’t get a qualifier against the U.S. or Mexico – and because of CONCACAF’s format, it almost certainly can’t – it has no way to make money. If it has no way to make money, it can’t grow the sport in its country. If it can’t grow the sport, the global soccer hierarchy stays more or less as is. International soccer’s current structure outside Europe reinforces the status quo.
UEFA, however, introduced a centralized commercial scheme in 2012 that predates the Nations League. It sells broadcast rights to all its qualifiers as a package, then distributes the profits to its 55 member associations. That doesn’t mean San Marino is getting as much money as England. But San Marino is getting a whole lot more than it otherwise would, and England is apparently getting more than it otherwise would. Everybody seems happy.
A Nations League, whether organized by FIFA or a separate entity, would adopt a similar revenue sharing scheme to the one that’s been lucrative for UEFA at both club and international levels. It wouldn’t just give minnows championships to play for, it would give them cash to play with. Even if relatively very few people would watch a League 6 quarterfinal between Kosovo and Bhutan, that game would garner more interest than a first-round World Cup qualifier between Bhutan and Sri Lanka – and certainly more than Bhutan’s mostly non-existent friendlies.
The centralized marketing would also benefit the big boys – if it wouldn’t, they won’t agree to it. But it surely will, because they’ll have a better product to sell. An England-Germany game in the Nations League group stage is more marketable than an England-Germany friendly, even if its meaning is somewhat manufactured.
On the surface, the league system, which essentially divides the world into soccer’s haves and have-nots, seems to drive home the wedge between the two groups. But in reality, it’s the have-nots – a majority of FIFA members – who would benefit more than anybody. If a Global Nations League can replicate UEFA’s all-encompassing commercial success, it will change international soccer for the better.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.