The UEFA Nations League is here. Here's a guide for all you need to know about the new competition, and you can check out the current state of play.
What is the UEFA Nations League?
It is a competition between the 55 member nations of UEFA, created because "UEFA and its associations wanted more sporting meaning in national team football, with associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly of the opinion that friendly matches are not providing adequate competition for national teams."
So this means there are no more international friendlies?
There will definitely be far fewer, though there are still a couple of spaces in the calendar. For instance, the top nations play four Nations League fixtures across three international weeks between September and November, and this will leave two spare dates for international friendlies.
However, Euro 2020 qualifying takes place through 2019 in March, June, September, October and November with two games each month, so the majority of teams (and almost all major nations) will not have free international dates for friendlies.
When is it played?
The group games are played on the six international dates between September and November 2018.
Matchday 1: Sept. 6-8, 2018
Matchday 2: Sept. 9-11, 2018
Matchday 3: Oct. 11-13, 2018
Matchday 4: Oct. 14-16, 2018
Matchday 5: Nov. 15-17, 2018
Matchday 6: Nov. 18-20, 2018
What format does it take?
The 55 nations were split into four "Leagues." The strongest nations are in League A, and the weakest in League D.
League A and B: Four groups of three nations (12 teams)
League C: Three groups of four nations, and one group of three (15)
League D: Four groups of four nations (16)
Teams within each group will play each other home and away.
What about promotion and relegation?
Yes. The winners of each group in Leagues B, C and D will move up, while the nations bottom of Leagues A, B and C will drop down for the next edition of the Nations League, which will be 2020-21. Poland were the first country to be relegated, from Group 3 of League A to League B.
Group 1 of League C only has three teams in it, while Groups 2, 3 and 4 each have four nations. Therefore the nation that finishes bottom of Group 1 is not automatically relegated. The third-placed team across all four groups with the worst record will be relegated. For the purposes of this calculation, results against the fourth-placed team are removed for Groups 2-4.
Will there actually be UEFA Nations League champions?
Yes. The four group winners from League A will playoff in knockout format -- semifinals, third-place match and final -- in June 2019, with all four matches being played in one host European country chosen from the finalists. Italy, Poland and Portugal have all submitted bids, and as these three countries are in the same Nations League group one will definitely host the finals. As Poland have already been relegated it is a straight battle between Italy and Portugal. Only nations in League A can go on to be overall Nations League champions.
Finals draw: early December 2018
Finals: June 5-9, 2019
It is important to note that the UEFA Nations League finals are not the same as the Euro 2020 qualification playoffs for League A. If you win the UEFA Nations League finals this does not carry an automatic place at Euro 2020.
How were teams ranked?
The pots are based on UEFA's national association coefficient rankings released on Oct. 11, 2017. This is different to the FIFA Ranking, only factors in competitive games and gives more credit for scoring goals and deducts points for conceding them.
Why take the Nations League seriously?
Firstly, it will decide each nation's ranking for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw -- so 10 of the 12 nations in League A are guaranteed to be in Pot 1. The two relegated teams with the worst Nations League record will be in Pot 2.
In League B, the teams who finish first and second will be in Pot 2, with the four relegated teams in Pot 3. League C will split almost down the middle to filter into Pots 3 and 4. So the better you perform in the Nations League, then you might get a more favourable draw in Euro 2020 qualifying.
Also, there is the "second chance" via the Euro 2020 playoffs (see below) as another carrot, creating a safety net if your Euro 2020 qualifying campaign goes badly wrong.
So what happens with Euro 2020 qualifying?
A few things. First, rather than starting in September 2018 as it usually would, it is pushed back to March 2019 through to November 2019.
Secondly, as stated above, the final positions and records from the UEFA Nations League will be used to rank nations for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw, which takes place on Dec. 2, 2018.
This is where it gets a little more complicated -- so stay with us.
The qualifying draw will create five groups of five teams and five groups of six teams. The four group winners from League A will be drawn into a group of five, enabling June 2019 to be left free for the UEFA Nations League finals.
Now it gets even more complicated...
How do the Euro 2020 qualifying playoffs work?
In qualifying for Euro 2016, the eight best third-placed teams from regular qualifying went into November playoffs.
For Euro 2020, the playoff teams will be plucked from the UEFA Nations League. The winners of the four groups in each League will, by right, go into the playoffs.
However, 20 nations will have already booked a place in the finals via regular qualifying, and many of these are likely to be UEFA Nations League group winners too, so it will be the best-ranked nation in each league that has not yet qualified who enters the playoffs.
It is important to make clear that if, for instance, the winners of a group have already qualified it is not the second-placed team in that same group that automatically takes the playoff place. It goes to the best-ranked nation. So it will be the one of the four runners-up with the most points. Or, if all runners-up have qualified, the third-placed team with the best record.
It is highly likely that most, if not all, automatic qualifiers for Euro 2020 will come from Leagues A and B, after all there are 20 places and the 24 strongest teams are in these leagues. Therefore, it effectively means that the teams who finish first AND second in League C are going to be guaranteed a minimum of a playoff.
If, for instance, fewer than four nations need a playoff from a given league, then the next best-ranked nation not to already hold a playoff spot will fill the hole. The ensures that a nation who by right has a League B playoff is not forced to fill up the League A playoffs. It would be the next-best League B teams who fill up League A.
And that means if every team in League A qualifies automatically, we are likely to see the League A playoffs contested by League C teams as the best-ranked nations not to have an automatic or playoff place.
The playoffs will be two one-legged semifinals and a final for a place at Euro 2020.
In its purest form, one nation from the League A, B, C and D path who failed to qualify directly for Euro 2020 will go through via the playoffs. In truth it is probably only certain that League C and D will definitely provide their own playoff winners.
Hope you're still with us after all that.
UEFA Euro 2020 playoff draw: Nov. 22, 2019
UEFA Euro 2020 playoffs: March 26-31, 2020
Will this make any difference?
Yes it will. Most importantly it's going to give nations who never previously had a real shot of qualifying a chance to make Euro 2020, plus subsequent finals if the idea is a success.
Take a look at the nations in League D and remember that four nations from that League will enter the March 2020 playoffs with the winners guaranteed to go to the finals. These are worst 16 teams in UEFA, and one of them is going to qualify; Georgia, Kosovo, Luxembourg and Macedonia are currently top in League D. It's a similar story for League C, with most nations having rarely, or never, appeared at a finals. Israel, Finland, Norway and Serbia lead the way in League C.
Is the competition a one-off?
No, the next UEFA Nations League is due to begin in September 2020, with new divisions based on promotion and relegation, though there is no information at present about how this could affect qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. It is highly unlikely that a similar playoff system will be adopted with only 13 places available for European nations, while FIFA is almost certain to use its own World Ranking to formulate qualifying draw pots.