The spark has been lost. International soccer is no longer the charming, compelling spectacle it once was. The same teams qualify for the major tournaments and the same teams win them (namely, Spain). But fear not. A plan is afoot.
According to a report by The Guardian, UEFA is set to propose a radical overhaul of the international soccer calendar, which would see European national teams participate in a new competition called the Nations League.
Existing dates allocated for friendly fixtures would be used to launch the new league, forming the central pillar of an initiative to improve international soccer. The idea has already been presented to the UEFA executive committee and could be implemented from 2018.
The concept of adding a competitive edge to exhibition fixtures is a noble one. It’s hard to muster up any sense of national pride when faced with an irrelevant and monotonous international friendly.
Yet a degree of scepticism should be applied to the proposal. The underlying motives are questionable.
Given their success in the rebranding and repackaging of the Champions League UEFA now views international soccer as the focus of its next marketing renovation.
The intense politicking between associations and confederations underpins the power struggle between UEFA and FIFA. They are the two most powerful bodies in world soccer and the Nations League would give UEFA more authority in an arena otherwise controlled by FIFA.
At club level the concept of a pan-European league has been explored before but the Nations League applies the proposition to international soccer for the first time. UEFA seems to have identified the final frontier of European soccer not to have had every last penny wrung out.
Brazil has demonstrated how lucrative the international game can be. The self-styled ‘Brasil World Tour’ has translated the innate allure and romance of the Selecao into hard cash (Brazil command an appearance fee of $3 million per game). The Nations League plan suggests UEFA has been casting envious glances and hopes to market the European game in the same way.
If the Champions League financial distribution model is to be taken as precedent those who compete at the top-end of the Nations League would receive higher royalties than those at foot of the pyramid.
Last season’s Champions League winners, Bayern Munich, were awarded €30.5 million in prize money and bonuses, supplemented by their share of the competition’s TV money, €21.8 million, making their triumph worth over €52 million. By comparison Celtic, who exited just three rounds before the Germans, received around €25 million.
UEFA has already started the process of centralizing media rights for World Cups and European Championships, with broadcasters negotiating contracts directly with the European governing body rather than the national associations. Just as it does from the Champions League and Europa League, UEFA would stand to claim its own share of the riches.
The proposed model would protect the elite, with UEFA’s 54 member nations split into nine divisions depending on their seeding. For instance, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England and Portugal would form the top flight.
Naturally, the most prestigious nations draw the most interest, and highest fees, from broadcasters. It is therefore in UEFA’s interest to group those countries together, giving them the most attractive and lucrative product to sell. The status quo would effectively be sheltered by a new constitution, in the form of the new TV agreements struck with broadcasters.
But is the Nations League proposal in the best interests of those below the line? It doesn’t appear so.
Mobility is the essence of soccer. Without the means to meet ambition the sport loses its charm. How can a side improve themselves without the challenge of playing superior opposition? The glamour friendly might appear a futile and frankly tedious exercise to the neutral but it provides lesser teams with the opportunity to measure up against the best.
While the purpose might have been obscured in recent years international friendly games do have one. Their role as preparation for major tournaments, with associations tailoring their build-up to World Cups and European Championships, is invaluable.
The new league set-up wouldn’t interfere with the current qualification schedule, but would increase the number of international matchdays. Countries would be obligated to partake in both qualification campaigns and the newly formed Nations League.
Such a reorganization of the international schedule risks a backlash from Europe’s biggest and most powerful clubs.
Managers already complain about the number of international dates. The club versus country row is founded on the premise of a player returning to his club with an injury picked up on international duty. Are Europe’s elite clubs likely to back a proposal that introduces even more opportunities for that to happen?
The G14 body was disbanded in 2008, replaced by the less concentrated European Club Association, but UEFA mustn’t underestimate the impact a concerted protest by Europe’s leagues and clubs could have.
National associations maintain control within the jurisdiction of their respective leagues and competitions but their grip on the European game is slipping. Not just slipping, being clawed away from them.
The Nations League might well make international soccer more attractive but its execution could come at a cost. That cost is the one UEFA is charging.