Nations League gets thumbs up after exciting start

Reuters
The competition was created to replace friendly internationals that were proving unpopular with clubs, players and fans as they interrupted league action.
Reuters

The UEFA Nations League could not have timed its inaugural matchday better with freshly-crowned world champion France in the midst of gripping action in the race for the new continental title.

The competition was created to replace friendly internationals that were proving unpopular with clubs, players and fans as they interrupted league action.

To be held every two years, it features all 55 of Europe’s national teams divided into four leagues that are themselves split into four groups of three, to be played between September and November.

Apart from promotion, relegation and financial bonuses in every league, the top one, which includes France, Spain, England and Germany, will finish with a four-team mini-tournament in June next year, to decide the champion.

Initially greeted with scepticism, the Nations League largely got the thumbs up after the first batch of matches.

“I really like the competition,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew, whose team drew 0-0 in its League A clash against France last Thursday. “Because we have matches on a very high level.”

“You could also see that the fans were really behind it,” Loew said after almost 80,000 poured into Munich’s Allianz Arena for the game.

The Germans were desperate to make amends for their World Cup fiasco in Russia that saw them crash out at the group stage in June, and few teams would be better suited than the new world champion.

There was equal enthusiasm in other top matches, including in World Cup semifinalist England’s 1-2 loss to Spain on Saturday, with 81,000 at Wembley.

“We have got to go through those games, we have got to go through those experiences,” said England coach Gareth Southgate, who made only three changes to the team that played in the World Cup semifinal against Croatia.

For European heavyweights the Netherlands and Italy, the Nations League could not come sooner as a return to competition was important to both sides after failing to qualify for the World Cup.

The Dutch suffered a 1-2 loss to France on Sunday but were visibly content to be mixing it up again with Europe’s big boys. “I think we are on the right track,” said Dutch coach Ronald Koeman.

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