Dismissed, derided and displaced by the pandemic and yet the UEFA Nations League is proving impossible to ignore.
In Milan and Turin this week there have been two classic encounters worthy of those fine sporting venues involving four of the most distinguished international teams in Europe.
The outcome has been fast and aggressive football with twisting scripts and echoes of the thrilling entertainment of Euro 2020.
Dismissed and derided, the Nations League has been impossible to ignore amid a great week
Italy’s record-breaking unbeaten run ground to a halt, Spain hailed their youngest ever player, France summoned a stunning comeback and the Belgians were crushed again.
‘We need to get rid of the Nations League and find clearer events everyone understands,’ said Arsene Wenger in an interview with German newspaper Bild last year, a preamble by FIFA’s chief of global football development to the launch of his plans for a biennial World Cup.
‘If you ask people in the street what the Nations League is and you won’t find many able to explain it. We need to have as few events as possible. One World Cup and one European Championship every other year would be more appropriate for a modern world.’
Spain ended Italy’s unbeaten run while France secured a comeback victory over Belgium
Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is looking to can the competition for a biennial World Cup
The Nations League was designed by UEFA when FIFA president Gianni Infantino was its general secretary and its aim was to eradicate meaningless friendlies.
It has broadly achieved its aims. The mini-league phases have produced even contests, making for exciting football with a competitive edge, and these finals have been a delight, hitting a sweet spot between games without meaning and those of overbearing importance where a fear of failure induces caution.
On Tuesday, when Italy lost after 37 matches unbeaten, Roberto Mancini shrugged and said it was better to lose here than in the World Cup or in the European Championships. The Italian media applauded its team in defeat.
It is the value of perspective. Mancini is blissfully free of pressure after his triumph at Euro 2020 but the source of the Azzurri’s world-record run is worthy of note because it was spawned by an urgent desire to avoid the relegation from the top tier of the Nations League, three years ago.
However, the competition has helped sides like Italy put together a good run of form
Italy escaped – although no teams went down because the format changed – and pushed the momentum into the Euro qualifiers, where they won every game forging a spirit still evident as their 10 men battled for a late equaliser before losing 2-1 to Spain on Tuesday.
Whether Mancini could have generated the same force without competitive football is open to debate.
For Belgium, like England in 2018/19, any trophy is a coveted prize. Something at least to change the narrative around a golden era losing its gleam, maturing fast and with nothing to show.
Roberto Martinez admitted it hurt to lose to France on Thursday, especially the manner of the defeat. They were 2-0 up with over an hour gone and lost 3-2 in the last minute.
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez admitted it was hard to stomach his side’s tournament exit
Martinez felt the ’emotion’ of nearly reaching a final had been a factor. The Nations League mattered a great deal to the Belgium boss just as it has served a useful purpose for his French counterpart.
Didier Deschamps was criticised for his team’s early exit from Euro 2020 and a series of stumbling performances despite the fabulous depth of quality at his disposal.
From 2-0 down, France dug out a reaction, salvaged pride and eased the heat on Deschamps. The Nations League offered the world champions something real to bite on. Beat Spain in the San Siro on Sunday it will be packaged as a genuine success.
Just as Spain will hail victory as the beginning of a new cycle with a generation epitomised by Gavi who won his first senior cap aged 16 years and 62 days, in ferocious semi-final against Italy.
Despite its good effect, the Nations League could be over before it started if Wenger succeeds
‘A magical aside’ was the phrase coined by Deschamps to describe the Nations League.
Perhaps it can grow and prosper. Top-class football and Europe’s best players will always stir enthusiasm among TV companies competing for rights, and the draw for the next edition will soon be upon us, in December, with these finals fresh in the mind.
Or perhaps ultimately this brief success will be its downfall as Wenger’s vision takes shape and football braces for major tournament football every summer.
Fewer meaningless games is the mantra, and the Nations League appears to support the argument. It might turn out to be an unwitting catalyst for something UEFA insist they do not want.