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 football’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.
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 (Kosovo was not a member at this time) at the XXXVIII Ordinary UEFA Congress in Astana on 27th March 2014.
According to the approved format (prior to Kosovo becoming a UEFA member), the 55 UEFA national teams (including Kosovo) were divided into four divisions (called “Leagues”) – 12 teams in League A, 12 teams in League B, 15 teams in League C, and 16 teams in League D.
In each league, four groups were formed (three or four teams in each group) and teams played each other both – home and away.
Adjustment starting from 2020–21
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 newer 2020–21 format occurred by making various one-time changes after the 2018–19 season, namely the suspension of relegations (of the bottom-placed teams) in both League A and League B, promoting the two best teams per group in both League C and League D (instead of only one team per group), and promoting 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.
All teams in the same group played their last match simultaneously to increase 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.
Nations League Finals, promotion and relegation
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 (there are four groups in Leagues A, B, and C, and two groups in League D) except for League A, who will go on to play in the Nations League Finals, 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 each team playing one leg at home (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.
UEFA European Championship link
The UEFA Nations League is linked with the UEFA European Championship qualifying, providing teams with 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).
FIFA World Cup link
The Nations League will be partially linked with European qualification for the FIFA World Cup, although to a lesser degree than is done for 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.