The much mocked and riled UEFA Nations League could finally be a positive change from Europe’s footballing governing body as they reduce the number of energy sapping pointless friendlies for the big teams, and provide an opportunity for some of the lower ranked footballing nations to play some meaningful games to improve them.
As the dust settles on the inaugural round of UEFA Nations League fixtures and we all dread the return of league football across the continent, a quick reflection shows that the new format has been well received across a lot of Europe and could actually be a good idea on a number of levels. Firstly, rather than friendlies club sides manager’s would rather do without, and fans would rather didn’t feature in excess of 17 different players appearing for both sides, games have been both competitive and useful for the teams towards the top of the Nations League pyramid – with the higher ranked nations playing each other in a competitive game which hasn’t been win at all costs for competition qualification, but at the same time hasn’t been as pedestrian as friendly. Likewise, teams towards the bottom of the pyramid haven’t played games where they have been humiliated by the traditionally stronger nations, learning absolutely nothing other than how to chase shadows and pick the ball out of the net – they have played teams with similar quality and history, giving them a chance to play in competitive games and give them a feel for what it is like to win games, or defend leads going in to the final minutes, or keep the ball; this can only stand them in good stead for future qualification games.
The UEFA Nations League is not a league of friendlies as it offers sides who struggle during regular qualification for the European Championships in 2020 a ‘back door’ in to the competition – the trick being that you can’t abandon the Nations League on the basis that Euro 2020 qualification is most important, and then if that isn’t achieved, revert back to the Nations League – by that time the Nations League will be done and dusted. Teams should give the Nations League due attention, as it may be their saving grace come Euro 2020.
The format is confusing:
- 55 teams split in to four leagues (Leagues A, B, C and D) according to UEFA rankings
- Each league (A-D) is then split in to four groups (Groups 1 -4) of 3 or 4 teams
- In each league (A-D) four teams are promoted (group winners) and four teams are relegated (bottom of each group)
- Winners of Groups 1-4 in League A qualify for the final of the Nations League
- Each Nations League gets four play-off spots (if the Group winners have already qualified for the Euro’s the spot goes to second place and so on) – 16 teams who go in to four groups with top team in each going forward to the Euros. The four teams in each group play semi-finals and final to determine qualification. The play-offs not being played until March 2020, but the line-up determined by games before the usual Euro Qualification games.
The format may be confusing but ultimately teams need to perform well to give them an insurance option for qualification for the Euro’s, and at the same time it offers the lower ranked and smaller nations a potentially more attractive route to qualifications – top a group of similar ranked teams and then win three ‘one-off’ games (rather than a longer qualification campaign in the traditional ranked format).
The Leagues and Groups are based on UEFA Rankings so they should be relatively comparative and close-matched – and for the most part in Leagues A and B they are, but looking at Leagues C and D, years of poor qualification records mean there is some disparity between the teams – in particular, Scotland look to have a modest group with Albania and Israel; Bulgaria with Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus; and, Serbia with Romania, Montenegro and Lithuania. In Group D Macedonia are the best of a poor bunch against Armenia, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.
It is League D Group 3 which intrigues me the most: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta and Kosovo. In any regular qualifying game or normal friendly, all four of these teams would be long odds against a win, but on paper they all have the potentially to both win the group and finish bottom of it. My money would be on Kosovo though.
As a country, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. In footballing terms, they played their first game as an independent nation almost two years to the day since they achieved independence in February 2010, a 3-2 home defeat by Albania. Despite applying for FIFA member the October following independence, this was rejected on the grounds that the independent state was not recognised by the international community – this meant they couldn’t even play friendly matches. It took until May 2012 for FIFA to revert that decision, allowing Kosovo to play international friendlies, but this was followed by a period of protest by Serbia resulting in the decision to allow them to play international friendlies to be revoked. It was not until January 2014 that FIFA granted permission for Kosovo to play against other FIFA member associations in international friendlies, but not representative teams of countries of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo’s first international friendly followed in March 2014, a 0-0 draw with Haiti. In terms of competitive football, Kosovo made their debut in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup following being accepted in to UEFA in May 2016 – they finished bottom of a qualifying group which contained Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine (Group I), with 1 point, 3 goals for and 24 against (see above regarding teams learning nothing from traditional qualifying games where they stand little chance of learning anything). The campaign had started with reasonable positivity with a 1-1 away draw with Finland.
At the end of that qualification campaign, Kosovo’s international record (competitive and friendlies) read: Played 24, Won 6, Drawn 3, Lost 15 – with the 6 wins all coming in friendlies against the likes of Sapmi, Monaco and Equatorial Guinea. It wasn’t an immediate birth of a footballing super-power.
Fast-forward to the current day, and in the six games since the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign they are unbeaten – winning five and drawing one. Giving them an overall record of Played 30, Won 11, Drawn 4 and Lost 15 – for a such a young footballing nation, a 50% non-defeat record is not a bad building block to start from. The friendly against Latvia in November 2017 resulted in a 4-3 victory – the first time they had scored four goals since independence was definitely a turning point following a disappointing qualifying campaign, and this victory came after their manager during World Cup qualifying, Albert Bunjaki, resigned following the poor results in qualifying, with a win percentage of 16.7%.
Bunjaki may have seen them as poor results but their worst defeat was 6-0 against Croatia in October 2016, just five months after being accepted in to UEFA, and don’t forget, Croatia reached the final of that tournament. Apart from a 3-0 loss away to the Ukraine days after the Croatia defeat, and a 4-1 loss to Turkey, Kosovo weren’t beaten by more than two goals in any game.
Following the victory over Latvia at the end of the World Cup Qualifying campaign (presided over by Caretaker Coach Muharrem Sahiti, Kosovo appointed the Swiss Bernard Challanders, a former coach of Young Boys, Zurich, Sion, Thun and Armenia, as well as the Under 17s, 18s and 21s of Switzerland. Since starting his role with the Swiss under 21 side on 1st July 2001, and including his five games in charge of Kosovo, he has a win percentage of almost 42%, winning more games than he has lost (129 to 111).
Since taking over the Kosovo team he has led them to four victories and one draw – with friendly wins over Madagascar, Burkina Faso, the Faroe Islands and most importantly Albania, and a draw against Azerbaijan. They are also yet to concede a goal under him (current goal difference is +8). He seems to have taken what they were good at in defeat in to games against comparable opposition – not conceding too many goals, and adding goals to the mix (they only scored 3 goals in the World Cup qualifying campaign). At the lower levels of European International football, teams concede a lot of goals – if you can be stingy at the back and not concede often, the likelihood is you will get chances. As was evident in the recent Nations League game against Faroe Islands. Going in to the tournament, Azerbaijan where probably favourites for League D Group 3, and recognising this as the toughest of their ties, Kosovo got a 0-0 draw in Baku – drawing away and winning at home is a good method to make sure you are in the mix at the end of the tournament, and you would expect them to get a win away at Malta and maybe even at the Faroe Islands, so it could all be in their hands.
If you look at the Kosovo squad, they aren’t made up of nobodies playing in part-time leagues in the middle of nowhere; their last squad featured players from Dinamo Zagreb, Mouscron, Zurich, Akhmmat Grozny, Heerenveen, Bronby, Swansea, Start, Genk, Sheffield Wednesday and Willem II – all teams people have heard of and the majority of which play in the top flights of their respective football pyramid. These are just the players who have chosen to play for Kosovo since their independence and acceptance in to UEFA. Prior to this the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami, Cana, Xhaka and Januzaj all qualified to play for Kosovo but chose alternatives potentially due to Kosovo not being accepted by UEFA for International Football. These are all players who would improve any team in Leagues B, C and D. Now Kosovo players no longer have to look elsewhere for international football, there is the chance that more talent can come through the system to represent the national side.
The Football Superleague of Kosovo is hardly a footballing hot bed – its is ranked the 55th league according to UEFAs coefficient, just ahead of San Marino and Gibraltar and some 15,000 coefficient points behind Scotland , and this is reflected in their performance in the Europa and Champions League entrants in the last couple of years – the furthest a team got was the 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League this year, where Drita where eliminated by F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, which gives you an idea of the quality of the league. But this could be to the national sides gain. If a player has quality and wants to make it a decent level, he will more than likely have to move abroad, probably from a young age, and potentially to nearby countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Croatia to help them progress. The key here though is that they have a country they can return to and proudly represent on the international stage, an option the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami and Xhaka weren’t afforded at that stage of their careers. The future has the potential to be very bright.
Part way through their failed World Cup campaign I spotted the trend that although they were a young side in terms of International football for the country, they weren’t getting tonked like we see with San Marino, Malta and Gibraltar, and from a personal point of view, backing them in the handicap market of +3 goals at roughly evens was pretty successful. To take it one step further I asked Skybet to price up a #RequestABet that they would qualify for either the Euro’s in 2020 or the World Cup in 2022 – they never responded. At present Skybet are offering odds of 8/13 for Kosovo to win League D Group 3 and odds of 2500/1 to win the Euros in 2020 – I’m not saying they will win the tournament, but they are currently 48th in the list to win it, which gives an indication on the bookies belief in their chances of qualifying – not very likely. In normal circumstances they would probably be right, but I imagine not so long ago Iceland were somewhere down that list and look how far they have come and what they have achieved in the last 6 or so years. And they didn’t have a ‘back door’ option to qualify. I don’t think it will be long until we (hopefully) see a Shefki Kuqi-style belly flop to celebrate qualification for a major tournament.