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The UEFA Nations League is a biennial international football competition contested by the senior men's national teams of the member associations of UEFA, the sport's European governing body.
The first tournament began in September 2018, following the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The four group winners from League A qualified for the finals, played in Portugal in June 2019. Four nations, one from each League, also qualified for the UEFA Euro 2020 finals.
The competition largely replaces the international friendly matches previously played on the FIFA International Match Calendar to more competitive matches. The competition is regarded by UEFA as a major tournament.
In October 2013, Norwegian Football Association President Yngve Hallén confirmed that talks had been held to create a third full national-team international tournament for UEFA members in addition to the FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship.
The concept of the UEFA Nations League would see all 55 of UEFA's member associations' national teams divided into a series of groups based upon a ranking formulated using their recent results, where they would be promoted and relegated to other groups according to their results within the group. The proposed tournament would take place on dates on the FIFA International Match Calendar that were previously allocated for international friendlies and would not affect the FIFA World Cup or UEFA European Championship.
In March 2014, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino stated that one of the benefits of the proposal would be to help less glamorous national associations arrange games.
Royal Belgian Football Association's general secretary Steven Martens said that lower ranked nations would still benefit financially from the competition, as the television contract with UEFA would be centralised. The UEFA Nations League was unanimously adopted by the 54 UEFA member associations at the XXXVIII Ordinary UEFA Congress in Astana on 27 March 2014.
According to the approved format, the 54 UEFA national teams were divided into four divisions (called "Leagues"): 12 teams in League A, 12 teams in League B, 14 teams in League C, and 16 teams in League D. In each league, four groups were formed (with three or four teams) and teams played each other both home and away.
After the completion of the first season, UEFA decided to adjust the format of the Nations League starting from the 2020–21 season. The new league structure comprised 16 teams in Leagues A, B and C and seven teams in League D.
The transition to the new format occurred by making various one-time changes after the 2018–19 season, namely the suspension of relegations in both League A and League B, the promotion of the two best teams per group in both League C and League D (instead of only one team per group), and the promotion of the best third-placed team from League D.
This change to the format followed a collective consultation process, whereby all UEFA national associations reiterated their intent to further reduce the number of friendly matches. The number of competitive matches was increased from 138 to 162, thus increasing the commercial value and viewer attractiveness of the competition. Almost all teams in the same group played their last match simultaneously with the aim of promoting fairness. More matches were played within Leagues A and B, with the two leagues now incorporating competition between the 32 highest-ranked UEFA national associations, instead of the previous system where Leagues A and B together only incorporated 24 of the highest-ranked UEFA national associations.
In the top league, League A, the winners of the four groups go on to play in the Nations League Finals, with two semi-finals, one third and fourth place decider, and one final to decide which team becomes the UEFA Nations League champion.
Teams can also be promoted and relegated to a higher or lower league. Starting in 2020–21, each group winner in Leagues B, C, and D is automatically promoted to the next higher league for the next tournament. Each team placing last in its group in the Leagues A and B is automatically relegated to the next lower league; as League C has four groups while League D has only two, the two League C teams that are to be relegated are determined by play-outs beginning in March 2022. Based on the Nations League overall ranking of the fourth-placed teams, the first-ranked team face the fourth-ranked team, and the second-ranked team face the third-ranked team. Two ties are played over two legs, with the higher-ranked team hosts the second leg. The two teams that score more goals on aggregate over the two legs remain in League C, while the losing teams are relegated to League D. If the aggregate score is level, the team that scored more away goals rule over the two legs stay in League C. If away goals were also equal, then extra time will be played. The away goals rule applies again after extra time, i.e. if there were goals scored during extra time and the aggregate score was still level, the visiting team stay in League C by virtue of more away goals scored. If no goals are scored during extra time, the winners were decided by a penalty shoot-out.
The UEFA Nations League is linked with the UEFA European Championship qualifying, providing teams another chance to qualify for the UEFA European Championship. There were play-offs for each of Leagues A, B, C, and D in October and November 2020. Each group winner earned a spot in the semi-finals. If the group winner was already one of the 20 qualified teams, rankings were used to give the play-off spot to another team of that league. If fewer than four teams in the entire league remained unqualified, play-off spots for that league were given to teams of the next lower league. This determined the four remaining qualifying spots for the European Championship (out of 24 total).
The Nations League is linked with European qualification for the FIFA World Cup, although to a lesser degree than the UEFA European Championship qualifying play-offs. The first round of the World Cup qualification consists of ten groups. The winner of each group will directly qualify for the World Cup. Then, the second round (which follows a play-off format) will be contested by the ten group runners-up, plus the best two Nations League group winners (based on the Nations League overall ranking) that finished outside the top two of their qualifying group. The play-offs will be split into three play-off paths, played in two single-match knockout rounds (semi-finals and finals, with the home teams to be drawn), from which an additional three teams will also qualify.
UEFA devised the tournament as a means to eliminate international friendlies—an aim that has been shared by many football clubs and supporters, with the regular football season being interrupted with non-competitive international matches as part of the FIFA International Match Calendar.
In February 2012, it was agreed between UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) that the international friendly schedule would be reduced from 12 to 9 matches a year with the August round of international friendlies in the UEFA confederation abolished from 2015. The aspiration to eliminate friendlies in favour of a more competitive tournament has been both welcomed and criticized by many football commentators.
Supporters more than most realise that most friendlies fail to deliver competitive and meaningful football. Now they will have the opportunity to see their teams play in more competitive matches, take part in a new competition and get a second chance to qualify for the major tournaments. There will certainly be fewer friendly internationals and undoubtedly fewer meaningless friendlies. However, there will still be space in the calendar for friendly internationals—particularly warm-up matches for final tournaments. UEFA is also keen that European teams will still have the chance to play opponents from other confederations.
The format has been criticised as allowing weaker teams to qualify through the Nations League to compete in the European Championship finals, instead of qualifying through the standard qualification process.
The UEFA Nations League trophy was unveiled during the phase draw in Lausanne, Switzerland. The trophy represents all 55 UEFA National associations and is made of sterling silver. The trophy weighs 7.5 kg and is 71 cm tall.
The official anthem of the UEFA Nations League was recorded with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, singing in Latin. It is a mix of classical and electronic music, and is played when the players are entering the field of play, in television sequences and for ceremonial purposes. The composers are Giorgio Tuinfort and Franck van der Heijden.
Each season of the UEFA Nations League is typically played from September to November of an even-numbered year (league phase), and June of the following odd-numbered year (Nations League Finals of League A), meaning a UEFA Nations League champion is crowned every two years. An exception will be made in the 2022–23 season when the league phase will be played in June and September 2022, due to the 2022 FIFA World Cup played in Qatar at the end of the year.
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