With the second edition of the UEFA Nations League finals on the horizon, we look at how the innovative structure of the competition has led to a more exciting international football calendar for Europe's 55 national teams.
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Next week will see the crowning of the second UEFA Nations League winners, as hosts and new EURO title holders Italy face Spain and world champions France take on Belgium in the two semi-finals before Sunday's finale in Milan.
It is a star-studded line-up pitting some of the best international teams on the planet against each other, the perfect example of the rejuvenation of national-team football intended by the competition's creation.
The UEFA Nations League was designed to provide more competitive action for all 55 of UEFA's member national associations, with top teams in League A aspiring to take part in the elite-level finals and lower-ranked sides in Leagues B, C and D afforded the chance of more balanced matches and the incentive of achieving promotion.
Early days and debut success
The Nations League was given the green light as far back as 2014 at UEFA's Congress in Astana, Kazakhstan – the aim being to reduce the number of meaningless friendly international matches and instead offer more competitive opportunities for nations to play teams of similar quality, making every game count.
Featuring promotion and relegation to replicate the excitement of domestic club football, the first edition of the Nations League more than delivered, with the league phase – which ran over six matchdays between September and November 2018 – producing an abundance of exciting and competitive football across all four leagues, culminating in the four group winners from League A fighting it out at the finals.
Finals hosts Portugal became the inaugural champions in June 2019, edging out the Netherlands in the final as England beat Switzerland on penalties to claim third place following a pair of exhilarating semi-finals.
The 2018/19 UEFA Nations League Team of the Tournament
Jordan Pickford – England
Nélson Semedo – Portugal
Rúben Dias – Portugal
Virgil van Dijk – Netherlands
Daley Blind – Netherlands
Bruno Fernandes – Portugal
Frenkie de Jong – Netherlands
Georginio Wijnaldum – Netherlands
Xherdan Shaqiri – Switzerland
Bernardo Silva – Portugal (Player of the Tournament)
Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
A tweaked format for 2020/21
Following a consultation process involving all 55 UEFA member national associations, and reflecting their desire to further minimise the amount of friendly matches, a new format was approved for the 2020/21 Nations League, taking the number of group-stage games up from 138 to 162.
This meant that almost all teams would now play six group matches; it also enhanced the sense of sporting fairness since all sides in four-team groups could now play their last matches on the same day and at the same time.
The new league structure consisted of 16 teams in each of Leagues A, B and C and seven teams in League D. The group winners in Leagues B, C and D gained promotion. Those finishing bottom of the groups in Leagues A and B were relegated, with two League C sides also demoted to League D for the third edition of the competition in 2022/23.
Italy provides the perfect stage
With capital city Rome having hosted four matches at UEFA EURO 2020, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) is delighted to be staging the UEFA Nations League finals, capping a memorable year on and off the pitch after Roberto Mancini's side became European champions at Wembley Stadium in July.
"Italy is proud to host the final phase of the UEFA Nations League," said FIGC president, Gabriele Gravina.
"Italy and football represent a really appealing combination and I am convinced that everyone’s stay in our country will be memorable. Thanks to UEFA, which decided to entrust the FIGC with the organisation of this event, the world spotlight will focus on two exceptional stages [San Siro, Milan and Juventus Stadium, Turin]," Gravina continued.
"The great success of EURO 2020, in which Italy played a leading role not only on the field with our victory in the final at Wembley, but also off it with the holding of four matches, will help the success of this event and will certainly consolidate interest in this young competition."