Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne didn’t mince words when asked about his upcoming international fixtures.
“For me, the Nations League is unimportant,” the Belgium star said ahead of a run of four games in the competition.
“We have to play those matches, but it’s a kind of practice campaign. Everyone has had a very tough season.”
De Bruyne is not wrong about it being another hump at the end of a long road, he joins up with the national team off the back of a 44-game season faced with competitive games against the likes of the Netherlands and Poland.
The idea behind the Nations League was to make European international soccer more competitive. UEFA
Or, as it said in the official press release launching the League, “the compact format, in which any match can be decisive, makes for a dynamic competition where no team can afford to lose its focus. In the UEFA Nations League, every game counts.”
But after playing in a grueling Premier League title race, which went down to the last minutes of the season, and a full-on Champions League campaign, where he missed out on the final in extra time, you can understand why De Bruyne isn’t t keen for another run of intense games.
“I want to win. Other than that, I don’t have much to say about it,” he added, “as players, we can talk about vacation or rest, but we have no say. We follow what we need to do and that’s it.We have a little more than three weeks of vacation every twelve months.
“The outsiders don’t understand how a player feels after a season.”
His views are, unsurprisingly, supported by the biggest scheduling critic of them all, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
“I still think it is one of the most ridiculous ideas in the world of football because now we finish a season where players have played more than 70 games, easily – club games 63 or 64, plus internationals – and then go directly to 75, which is pretty mad,” the German coach said.
“We continue with Nations League games because we have to play them [when] there is no tournament, who cares we play four, five or six games with the national teams,” Klopp added.
Relegated or not?
The issue most critics have with the Nations League is not about the number of games, it’s that any glory is quite distant and the level of jeopardy for most teams is not high either.
A big innovation for the competition was the introduction of promotion and relegation, matching the international game with domestic soccer.
But the crucial difference between demotion from the Nations League compared to something like the Premier League is that in many cases it hasn’t seemed to have much impact.
Not least because Germany, the first major nation to be relegated under the new format, remained in the top division because UEFA decided to immediately revamp the format.
These changes saw none of the countries who were demoted in the first edition go down because the governing body wanted a bigger top tier with more high-profile games.
As a German media outlet DW put it, “League A will now feature 16 teams, resulting in more games and revenue for UEFA.”
Relegation is even more problematic when the teams at the bottom aren’t even that bothered by it either.
Northern Ireland has dropped a division since the last Nations League but, despite being aware of the qualification prizes available to those who perform well in the competition, had its manager Ian Baraclough suggest he’d use the games to give youngsters an opportunity they wouldn’t t normally get.
“We’ve always used this tournament as a chance to give [young players] experience and we still see it as a tournament like that, even though we also know the benefits of winning games and going for top spot,” he said ahead of matches against Greece, Cyprus and Kosovo.
“It’s about trying to find that balance, bringing new players into the squad, but also for us it’s the bigger picture of qualifying for European Championships and World Cups.”
More tournaments, less interest?
Interestingly the Nations League format bars a striking resemblance to the original format of the European Championships, or Euros as they are now known. When the competition was first established in the 1960s, a lengthy qualification campaign over many years was settled in a four-team tournament every four years, just like UEFA’s second string competition.
The crucial difference with the Nations League is that it takes every other year and is essentially a less-prestigious version of the Euros.
France might be the current holders, but there are few who would argue that this even begins to make up for their Second Round exit in the European Championships last summer.
Repetition is international soccer’s biggest problem when it comes to creating new tournaments to bring in fresh revenue.
The geographic parameters of national sport mean soccer federations can only really create things that replicate what already exists.
FIFA, for example, tried unsuccessfully to create something to fill in the gaps left by the World Cup.
The FIFA Confederations Cup ran every two years from 1997 to 2017 and was comprised of the winners of various continental competitions, like the Euros.
Its problem was it didn’t really mean that much to win the competition, no nation could realistically claim to be the world’s best for winning, that was the World Cup winner. The trophy might have looked like the real thing, but it was fooling no one.
In 2019, after a series of delays and altered schedules, FIFA announced it was canning the entire competition focusing instead on grabbing some of the domestic league revenue with an expanded FIFA Club World Cup.
UEFA and CONMEBOL seized on the opportunity to fill what they saw as the void left by the inter-confederation competition by reviving CONMEBOL–UEFA Cup of Champions-or Finalissima as it was rebranded-game between the winner of the Euros and the Copa America champion .
Argentina’s players did look delighted to be picking up the crown after a 3-0 victory, but you got the sense that Italy as a nation was infinitely more disappointed with its failure to reach the World Cup in Qatar this year.
what to do
You can’t blame the European governing body for taking this approach, anyone who understands soccer finances knows that, whilst the romance and tradition of David vs Goliath clashes might be strong, what brings in the bucks are clashes between sides with prestige.
It is this knowledge that has fueled the attempts at a breakaway European Super League and created the expanded Champions League format.
The broad church that makes up the international soccer community makes these types of breakaways harder to fathom.
But the issue for the organizers is the same, if not harder.
After all, a global audience might not be enthused by a clash between Northern Ireland and Albania, but in both of those nations, the game can be hugely significant.
The political geography of Europe traditionally put it at a natural disadvantage to places like South America where the majority of nations are of a reasonable size and the love of soccer meant most have competitive teams.
Europe’s plethora of nations with tiny populations and little soccer heritage led to many mismatches, which often became tedious.
Change was needed, but perhaps the governing body went too far the other way in doing it, racking up so many games between the biggest sides they also became devalued.
The long-term answer, you suspect, is not in trying to create new formats but by maximizing the existing competitions.
Another reason why FIFA has abandoned the Confederations Cup is that it is eyeing a World Cup every two years, the Euros have now grown to 24 teams and there are suggestions that could be expanded to 32 nations.
One can only wonder what Kevin De Bruyne and Jurgen Klopp would make of a biannual World Cup, expanded Euros and Nations League crammed into an already overflowing fixture list.