Belfast Telegraph

Nations League will be shot in arm for Northern Ireland

By Stuart McKinley

Uefa have announced the format for its first Nations League competition, which will guarantee Northern Ireland at least two home matches between September and November 2018.

The matches in the new European tournament will eat up a large number of friendly dates in the international calendar and will also act as part of the qualification for Euro 2020 - although only the top nations will get the chance to qualify automatically for those finals through the Nations League.

It will, however, mean benefits for smaller nations, such as Northern Ireland.

Rather than take on friendlies in far flung countries or risk making a financial loss from a home match against unglamourous opposition, the Irish FA will know who Northen Ireland will face well in advance and, with Uefa in charge, the television rights will also bring in more money than is currently earned through friendly internationals.

Each country will play six matches in the new tournament, which will see Uefa's 52 representatives split into four divisions, each with four groups of three or four teams, with the divisions decided by ranking.

The winners of the four groups in Division A - which will be made up of the strongest teams - will play semi-finals and a final in June 2019 to become the Uefa Nations League champions.

The four semi-finalists will also qualify automatically for the finals of Euro 2020, which is being played in 13 countries across Europe with the final at London's Wembley Stadium.

The idea behind the setting up of the new competition, which has been in the planning for well over a decade, is to raise the profile of international football outside of major tournaments, with the fear that the rise in prominence of the Champions League will lead to that overtaking the international game.

Uefa said in a statement: "The key driver of the Uefa Nations League is sporting integrity, as member associations, coaches, players and supporters increasingly feel that friendly internationals are not providing adequate sporting competition.

"In addition, the competition will help Uefa realise its stated goal of improving the quality and standing of national team football while maintaining the balance between club and international football.

"The competition will establish the Uefa Nations League champions every odd year while also allowing all nations to play competitively at their level."

The matches in the first Uefa Nations League will be played shortly after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the final scheduled to be played in June 2019. After that, the four teams who qualify automatically for Euro 2020 will use the free dates on the calendar to contest lucrative friendlies, while the rest battle it out to join them.

Currently Northern Ireland are ranked 29th in Europe, which would see them placed in Division C of the Nations League if it were to be played now.

If, however, Michael O'Neill's team continues on the upward trend that has seen them collect nine points from a possible 12 at the start of the Euro 2016 qualifyinig campaign, they could move into Division B, which would bring more attractive opposition to the newly redeveloped Windsor Park, which will be fully operational long before the start of the new tournament in 2018.

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