The inaugural UEFA Nations League kicks off with a raft of high calibre clashes that ought to make the next few international breaks slightly more meaningful than is often the case. Enticing ties such as Germany taking on France and England facing Spain will grab the attention far more than any number of hollow, pointless friendlies at the start of the season, or a round of mismatched qualifiers. Loathed by many fans across the continent, this early season break, coming as it does when the domestic action seems to have barely got going, is the most frustrating of all of the international breaks for many.
Having more sporting meaning during these breaks away from the humdrum of club football is something that should go a little way to appeasing players, coaches and supporters alike, at least as much as possible given the interruptions to the ebb and flow of the domestic leagues. The idea of a Nations League, one that has since been introduced in CONCACAF and may yet see a global nations league at some point if rumours are to be believed, stemmed largely from a desire within the corridors of power at UEFA, and many of its member FAs, to seek to enhance the standing of international games away from the all-consuming tournament finals.
In theory, teams at all levels of the new league pyramid will be given equal opportunities to play nations far closer to their level than many of their qualification group opponents frequently are, be they countries at the top of the pile, or those down at the bottom. More balanced matches will be seen being played as a result. Very rarely during the usual European qualifying cycle do we see many games between two evenly matched teams, as the gulf in class is often starkly apparent to the detriment of all of those involved. It is to be hoped that a more meaningful competition will ensue and the natural hierarchy of a league structure will enable international football to remain more relevant away from the current biennial summer tournaments.
Whether this new idea is fully embraced at the top level of the structure remains to be seen, but at the other end of the scale the interest levels may be more enhanced. Three tiers below Europe’s top ranked international sides, the weakest of Europe’s contingent are gathered together in the less glamorous surroundings of League D.
For the lowliest of Europe’s fifty-five strong League of Nations, there is the prospect of taking part in competitive action where those teams don’t necessarily have to just park the bus, attempting little more than aiming to keep the deficit to a minimum. For sides more used to qualifying campaigns where most of their opponents are significantly higher rated than them, have infinitely more resources than them and can call upon players that the European minnows can only dream about, League D represents something more optimistic. It will be an arena where they can hope to compete and where the dice aren’t automatically loaded against them from the start. It is a chance to be competitive, an opportunity to dream. While previously there was only battling against almost insurmountable odds, there is now the exciting prospect of competitive international action against their peers. Teams used to the perennial damage limitation, face the real prospect of aiming for a meaningful international victory.
This rather condescending perspective is to slightly misjudge the calibre of some of the teams involved however, and as much as the Nations League will allow more parity in the teams facing each other, it is still a seeded competition. We will therefore miss out on the intriguing possibility of the two lowest ranked of them all, San Marino and Gibraltar, facing each other in competitive action, save for the remote possibility of them both reaching the semi-finals. For the best of those involved, there is the tantalising, and admittedly slightly controversial, prospect of a place at Euro 2020 for the League D winner. However, one shouldn’t get overly carried away at the possibility of seeing San Marino or Gibraltar, for example, putting in an appearance at the European Finals. They will both still be very much the outsiders, although hopefully to a lesser degree than is the case during the regular qualification campaigns.
Europe’s smallest minnows will indeed still be up against it even in their League D surroundings, facing opponents generally rated higher. There are some far stronger teams alongside them, even some with a hint of international pedigree in their past, and most with a greater strength in depth than either San Marino or Gibraltar.
Take Latvia, who are the only team in League D to have featured in tournament finals, and a relatively recent one at that. Not only did Latvia reach the final tournament of Euro 2004 in Portugal, but they far from disgraced themselves. Securing a goalless draw against the might of Germany as well as only narrowly losing to the much-heralded Czech Republic team of that time meant their one and only step to such an exalted level hadn’t necessarily taken them too uncomfortably beyond their depth, at that time at least.
Luxembourg have been one of Europe’s weakest for some time, consistently failing to trouble most of the teams they play, but this all changed in the qualifiers for the last World Cup. The team from the Grand Duchy came away from Paris with a goalless draw; a remarkable result against the side who would become champions of the world a few months later. They also recorded a World Cup win against Belarus, who they will face again in the Nations League.
Then there is the Faroe Islands who hit the headlines a few years ago by beating Greece home and away in Euro 2016 qualifying. Add in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who England fans will recall having twice failed to beat at home in recent qualifying campaigns, Armenia who gave Denmark a thrashing a couple of years ago, and Azerbaijan who will be one of the tournament hosts of the Euro 2020 finals, and there are more than enough opponents to make things difficult for the very weakest.
For a side such as Gibraltar, until recently Europe’s lowest ranked side until they edged above San Marino, this remains a tall order, albeit on a rather different scale to a normal qualifying campaign. But there is a potential of going for a victory which was a futile objective in many of their competitive internationals. That alone gives ground for optimism. Their recent rise in world rankings is also down to a friendly victory over fellow League D side Latvia in March this year. This win was Gibraltar’s first in a full international since becoming a fully-fledged FIFA member and only second ever victory since becoming part of UEFA a couple of years earlier. Minnows they may be, but this is a team very much looking forward to mixing it competitively with the other teams closer to their level.
When the draw was made earlier this year in Lausanne, Gibraltar were handed a group containing FYR Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein. On the face of it, taking on Macedonia (world ranking 70) and Armenia (world ranking 100) is going to be a tall order for 195th ranked Gibraltar. The prospect of facing Liechtenstein, however, offers a pair of fixtures where Gibraltar will have the opportunity to be genuinely competitive. The Gibraltarian FA’s General Secretary, Dennis Beiso, described the draw as “very exciting”, adding that “I am sure our players and fans will share this excitement and will be looking forward to the UEFA Nations League as a tournament in which our national team can be truly competitive.”
For the new league to serve its purpose to those at the bottom of its pyramid, it is to be hoped that Beiso’s words ring true, and that a side such as Gibraltar, and likewise San Marino, finds the opportunity to strive for something more positive from their international football experience. If these teams can be competitive, at least to a degree, it will surely be a boon to all concerned. Players, fans and footballing authorities alike would surely gain immeasurably from having an altogether more positive experience from their international action.
For Gibraltar, there is a tangible anticipation surrounding the start of the Nations League for several reasons, in addition to the possibility of facing opponents against whom they can hope to compete. Significantly, their opening match with FYR Macedonia will be the first competitive international game that Gibraltar will play on Gibraltarian soil. Until now, only friendlies have been able to be staged in the cosy surroundings of the Victoria Stadium, merely a walk from the runway of Gibraltar’s airport. All of the tiny nation’s qualifying matches until now have been played 400 km away in Faro. For the vibrant football community in Gibraltar, the prospect of competitive football under the shadow of the Rock is an enticing one.
The Nations League will also mark the first internationals that Gibraltar will play under the stewardship of their new coach, the Uruguayan Julio Ribas. He represents something of a coup for the national federation, given a relatively illustrious past having coached Uruguayan giants Penarol in two separate stints, as well as Italian Serie B side Venezia, among an impressive CV that also includes 15 appearances as a player for La Celeste, the Uruguayan national team. More recently he has been coaching in Gibraltar at Lincoln Red Imps and was at the helm of the Gibraltarian club when they beat Celtic, a former European Champion no less, in the Champions League qualifying round in 2016.
His reign in Gibraltar saw numerous national team training camps over the summer period as he assessed the talent at his disposal and instigated two tactical training sessions per week for those domestically based. As well as his tactical expertise, he is looking to alter the mind-set of the team to instil an attitude of “no fear” and emphasising the pride his players should take in representing their nation on the international stage and not to be cowed by being one of Europe’s smallest football countries. He called on his players to play for Gibraltar’s “history and its people” and to celebrate and draw inspiration from their unique circumstances.
“Gibraltar is a country that has quality across all sectors so there has to be no fear of being small”, he told the Gibraltar Chronicle recently. “Players in Gibraltar dream, they dream with beautiful things, the problem is we have to channel their dream and convert it into hard labour and for that hard labour to bear its fruit at the right moment. You don’t have to be afraid of losing, but you have to be able to turn that into an experience to start learning to win.”
When Gibraltar take the field in the coming days to face FYR Macedonia under the shadow of the imposing Rock of Gibraltar and then a few days later away in Liechtenstein, it will be fascinating to see if Ribas’ methods bear fruit in terms of performance and results. It can’t be underestimated what a difference it will make to players and fans alike to be playing competitively on home soil for the first time. Only time will tell us whether it will help them get a positive result in the coming days or will they be crippled by the undoubted added hype they will experience as a result.
One thing is for certain and it is that Gibraltar won’t be lacking in belief and endeavour if Ribas has any say in the matter. Seeing how they can progress will add a level of interest to League D that may not have been apparent at first glance and Gibraltar will hopefully demonstrate the value in UEFA’s new structure to some of its weakest members.