The final whistle went and Portugal celebrated. Because, well, what else were they supposed to do?
They’d won a trophy, and when you win a trophy, you’re supposed to celebrate. So Portugal celebrated. The Portuguese cheered and hugged and did that thing where they all form a big circle with their arms and hop around for a bit. They celebrated with their fans. They lifted the trophy as confetti fluttered down and generally acted like they had been dreaming of this moment all their lives. Or maybe they were happy about the 10.5 million euros in prize money that they’ll no doubt get a cut of.
The Netherlands doubled over and looked disappointed. Because when you lose a final, you’re supposed to double over and look disappointed. They thanked their fans for the support and for coming all the way to Porto. And then they glumly accepted their medals.
So far, this all checks out.
“Another final, another heartbreak for the Netherlands,” ESPN’s play-by-play man Ian Darke said earnestly on the American broadcast.
But was it? Heartbreak?
The final in question was the title game of the UEFA Nations League Finals, a new tournament designed to usurp the unwieldy barnstorming tour of friendly matches happening during the international windows when no qualifiers or major tournaments are scheduled. Ostensibly to make for consequential competition. But probably also to better monetize these games.
The Nations League Finals were invented and now they have happened. Portugal won the first edition after beating Switzerland 3-1 in the semifinals on its superior efficiency in front of goal and a deserved but scruffy 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final on Sunday, thanks to Goncalo Guedes’ lovely strike on the hour. The Dutch, for their part, had outlasted but only sometimes outclassed England in the other semifinal, winning 3-1 in extra-time.
— Yahoo Soccer (@FCYahoo) June 9, 2019
We must, of course, draw conclusions. Because takeaways are the currency of elite sports. At all times, a game must mean something and say something that we can arrange into a larger narrative arc, that we can slot into the longer story we tell.
Portugal is now a strong contender for Euro 2020, because it’s defending its title and has won this … thing. And the Netherlands has lost yet another final, after going oh-for-three in World Cup title games. They remain the beautiful losers who always choke when it matters most.
Predictably, the two nations interpreted the meaning of all this very differently.
Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman had announced ahead of the game that he wasn’t terribly bothered about this tournament. He considered it a distant third to the World Cup and Euro. And if Oranje won it? “We’ll have a glass of wine and go on vacation,” he said matter-of-factly.
After winning it, the Portuguese felt otherwise.
And manager Fernando Santos spoke of the great triumph as a vindication of some grand design.
"Since I arrived, we have chased our objectives. We have worked for every victory. It's difficult because we spend few days together training. This is the fruit of all that hard work," - Fernando Santos
— Rui Miguel Martins (@futebolfactory) June 9, 2019
"We are an indestructible family. We always believed. We always knew we could do it. We had a strong opponent but we always believed we would win," - Fernando Santos
— Rui Miguel Martins (@futebolfactory) June 9, 2019
The English, meanwhile, were upset that there wasn’t more pomp in receiving their third-place medals.
The outcome, then, became a kind of reverse Rorschach test on how your preferred team did. If things went well, the Nations League mattered. If it didn’t, it was just a bunch of glorified friendlies anyway.
At either rate, even the cynic has to concede that this event, with its months-long group stage and complicated promotion-relegation mechanism between different tiers, at the very least delivered high entertainment value. It is indeed a better product than the friendlies these national teams would have otherwise loafed through a half-dozen times a year. Whether the sense of occasion is illusory or not, it has nevertheless created more pressure to perform than in friendlies.
But does that make the Nations League meaningful?
This is the trouble with new tournaments. What makes them matter? Every tournament was new at some point, sure, but the saturation point has long since been reached. And not every tournament can be important. Not all of the prizes can be big ones, not every tournament major.
But the sport’s governing bodies just keep on making new events. Soon, every continent will have a Nations League of its own. The CONCACAF Nations League, which will pit the United States and Mexico against the same old regional foes it usually tried to avoid in friendlies in order to pursue better competition, is slated to begin in September.
FIFA is already working on an expanded Club World Cup of 24 teams, up from seven, to start in 2021. As of 2026, the World Cup will go from 32 teams to 48. The Euro and Women’s World Cups recently grew from 16 teams to 24.
Expansion in soccer is endless. More games. More tournaments. More revenue. More champions.
So now we have a new champion of Europe. Same as the defending champion of Europe.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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