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What is the UEFA Nations League?

Having completed its third edition, the UEFA Nations League continues to guarantee competitive matches for every European national team by replacing meaningless friendlies.

Spain became the third winners from the three editions of the tournament in 2023
Spain became the third winners from the three editions of the tournament in 2023 Getty Images

The UEFA Nations League has now completed its third edition, successfully fulfilling its mission to minimise meaningless friendlies and give nations competitive encounters with equally ranked teams.

Teams from all the European associations compete in a league structure featuring promotion and relegation. In the first edition of the tournament they were divided into 12 teams in League A, 12 in League B, 14 in League C and 16 in League D. Each league comprised of four groups, containing either three or four nations, and teams played each other both home and away. The four group winners of the top-ranked League A qualified for the Nations League finals, which was hosted by one of the quartet and featured a last-four stage, match for third place and the final.

The league phase was adjusted after the first edition to comprise 16 teams in Leagues A, B and C, and seven teams, split into only two groups, in League D. The group winners in Leagues B, C and D gained promotion while those who finished bottom of the groups in Leagues A and B were relegated. Two League C teams were also relegated to League D following home-and-away play-outs between the four fourth-ranked teams. The format of the finals remained unchanged.

Further format changes are planned for the 2024/25 edition of the competition, with the addition of a new knockout round creating a continuum between the group stage and finals. League A group winners and runners-up will participate in home-and-away quarter-finals, with the winners of these ties qualifying for the Final Four. The third-ranked teams from League A and the runners-up from League B, as well as the third-ranked teams from League B and the runners-up from League C, will play home-and-away promotion/relegation play-offs.

How are EURO and World Cup qualifying linked to the Nations League?

The Nations League is also linked to either EURO or FIFA World Cup qualification. In 2018/19, four spots at UEFA EURO 2020 were decided by play-offs and involved 16 teams that did not earn their place at those finals during qualification. The 16 teams were selected based on their Nations League performance before being divided into four paths, each containing four teams, with one team from each path qualifying for EURO.

In 2020/21, three World Cup spots were linked to the competition. The best two Nations League group winners, based on their ranking in the competition, that finished outside the top two of their World Cup qualifying group contested the play-offs alongside the ten World Cup qualifying group runners-up. The 12 teams were split into three paths of four, with semi-finals then a final determining the places at the finals.

Three of the 24 places at UEFA EURO 2024 will be determined by play-off spots with 12 teams involved based on their performance in the 2022/23 Nations League – nominally the group winners of Leagues A, B and C, but if they have already qualified, they will be replaced by the next best-ranked team in their league. If there are not enough non-qualified teams in the same league, then it filters down to the next league, finishing with League D.

Roll of honour

2018/19: Portugal
2020/21: France
2022/23: Spain