Italy make their bow in the Nations League tonight, taking on Poland in Bologna, but the format has proved confusing for many.
The competition largely replaces international friendlies, providing competitive games and a route to the 2020 European Championship.
With all 55 UEFA nations competing across four leagues it’s a little convoluted, so Football Italia have done our best to explain just how the Nations League works.
The Nations League will take place every two years, within the existing international match calendar. That means the same number of matches, but more competitive games.
All 55 UEFA member associations are competing, and the finals will be played next year in a yet-to-be-decided venue.
So how does it work?
The 55 UEFA nations have been split into four leagues: A, B, C and D, which have 12, 12, 15 and 16 teams respectively.
For the first edition, the leagues have been determined by coefficient, so Italy are in League A along with Europe’s other major footballing powers.
Each league is then divided into groups of three or four teams: the Azzurri are in Group 2 with Portugal and Poland.
Roberto Mancini’s side will play both teams home and away to determine the group winner.
What happens then?
The four winners of the League A groups will will qualify for the Nations League Finals in June 2019.
That will be a knockout tournament, with semi-finals, a third-place play-off and the final. The host country will be decided in December, and will be selected from among the group winners.
The winners of the final will be crowned Nations League champions.
Should Italy finish bottom of Group 2, they would be relegated to League B of the Nations League for the next edition, and be replaced by one of the group winners from League B.
Doesn’t it also help you qualify for Euro 2020?
This is where it gets slightly complicated.
Qualifying for Euro 2020 will begin in March 2019 as normal, but there will only be 20 qualifying spots available, rather than the previous 24.
That means the top two sides from each of the 10 groups will automatically qualify for the tournament.
The remaining four slots will be determined by the Nations League, and that’s where it starts to get tricky.
There will be 16 teams entered into a play-off system, divided into four paths. A path is formed with four teams from the same league, and one team from each path will qualify for the finals.
The winner of each group qualifies for the play-offs. So, should Italy fail to finish in the top two in their qualification section, but win their Nations League group, the Azzurri will be entered into the play-offs.
There, they would play a one-legged ties against one of the winners from the other groups in League A, with the home team determined by their overall record in the Nations League.
The two winners of the play-off semi-finals would then meet in a one-off final, with the home team determined by a draw.
However if, as seems likely, the group winners from League A are already qualified, their place in the play-off would be taken by the next-best ranked team in their league.
For example, if Italy win Group 2 and also qualify for Euro 2020, their place in the play-off would go the next best-ranked team from across League A.
There are four play-off spots available for each league. If there are not enough teams who haven’t qualified for Euro 2020 to form a four-team play-off, the next-best ranked side from the league below moves up.
So, if everyone in League A qualifies for Euro 2020 barring, for example, Iceland then three teams from League B would move up to compete against Iceland in the play-offs.
As the better-ranked team, Iceland would get a home game in the semi-final.
The same applies for Leagues B, C and D, and the winner of each path goes to Euro 2020.
Is that open to abuse?
In theory, yes.
As explained above, one nation from each league tier will qualify for Euro 2020 - so one from Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, the Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino or Gibraltar will qualify, as they’re in League D.
Theoretically, teams like Scotland, Serbia or Greece from League C could be relegated to League D and have a far easier path to Euro 2020, since they’d be confident of winning the League D play-off path.
Clearly that is unlikely to affect Italy, who would expect to qualify for the tournament anyway.
It’s also theoretically possible that it could be to a team’s advantage to lose in qualification.
For example, let’s say the Czech Republic have already been eliminated from Euro 2020 qualifying.
They’re playing Russia in the final qualification game, and a win for the Russians will see them finish second and qualify automatically for Euro 2020.
Given that both are in League B of the Nations League, that would mean Russia wouldn’t be in play-off contention - potentially opening up a slot for the Czechs.
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