UEFA Nations League a hit as positivity replaces skepticism

For Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA Nations League was an overwhelming thumbs up.

Across the continent, skepticism seems to have been replaced by positivity as European soccer‘s latest innovation replaced many unpopular friendly games in a busy calendar.

“The Nations League is even more successful than we thought,” Ceferin, the president of UEFA, said after group play ended Tuesday.

Most Nations League games were taken seriously and some, like the Netherlands’ dramatic comeback draw against Germany on Monday, provided real drama. What initially appeared to be a complex format started to make sense.

The competition involves all 55 European national teams, playing in small groups and separated into four tiers using promotion and relegation. A champion will emerge from a Final Four after a mini-tournament in June.

The Nations League will also award at least one place at the 2020 European Championship to one of the lowest-ranked teams on the continent.

A look at the Nations League’s impact:

FINAL FOUR

With World Cup finalists France and Croatia failing to win their groups — while Spain, Germany and Belgium also missed out — the Final Four in June will take place without several top teams. Instead, the surprise lineup of finalists includes Portugal, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Can Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo win another trophy? That’s if he plays, of course. The Juventus forward, who will be 34 in February, has been absent from international duty since the World Cup and faces a rape allegation in the United States.

Kathryn Mayorga filed a civil lawsuit in September in Nevada claiming Ronaldo raped her in his Las Vegas hotel room in 2009. Police reopened an investigation into the allegation at her request. Ronaldo has denied any wrongdoing.

Will Harry Kane-led England capture its first international title since the World Cup in 1966? The debate over whether winning the Nations League would genuinely end the title drought will ramp up in the coming months but coach Gareth Southgate will view it as another important step for a young team which also reached the World Cup semifinals.

Is this the start of a new, exciting era for the Dutch after the dark days when they failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup? Highly rated youngsters Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are key members of the team and Memphis Depay is seemingly fulfilling his potential.

Can Switzerland, which hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament since 1954, continue to upset the odds after ousting Belgium in group play? The Swiss will be the outsiders.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The Final Four, as well promotion and relegation in the four leagues, are easy enough to understand. However, the Nations League is also a backdoor into the 2020 European Championship.

That’s where things can get confusing.

There will still be a typical European Championship qualifying campaign, but 16 teams get a second chance through playoffs.

In spring 2020, the 2018 Nations League results will be dusted off as the qualifying criteria for the playoffs, handing places to the four best-placed teams from each Nations League tier who missed out in qualifying.

Currently, that means Kosovo is guaranteed a playoff spot but World Cup champion France isn’t — although the French are almost certain to qualify for 2020 the usual way.

MEANINGFULL MATCHES

Europe’s smallest teams finally have something to play for.

The likes of Georgia, Macedonia and Kosovo usually spend their time scrambling to organize barely watched friendlies. The Nations League gives them meaningful games and, since all three won their League D groups, a shot at qualifying for a European Championship — something that’s normally all but impossible.

Gone are the days when several of the tiniest nations waited years to earn a single point. The Nations League division system means UEFA’s smallest member, Gibraltar, was playing comparable opponents and earned two rare wins, while Luxembourg came within four points of winning its group.

No change for perennial struggler San Marino, though. It still lost all six of its games without scoring a goal.

FANS UNSURE

The games may be exciting, but they’re rarely sold out.

There were more than 20,000 empty seats in Gelsenkirchen for Germany’s dramatic 2-2 draw with the Netherlands, while Tuesday’s game between World Cup quarterfinalists Sweden and Russia was roundly criticized for its flat atmosphere even though promotion was at stake.

For Scotland’s 3-2 home win over Israel — a promotion decider billed as the host nation’s biggest game in a decade — Hampden Park was less than half full.

That shows that some European soccer fans have been slow to fall in love with the new Nations League format, though the old friendlies weren’t always crowd pleasers.

FIFA is sure to be watching, since president Gianni Infantino — formerly of UEFA — is looking to build a worldwide Nations League clone.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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