Belfast Telegraph

Shaw welcomes qualifying from Nations League

By Steven Beacom

Irish FA president Jim Shaw has welcomed Uefa's new 'League of Nations' tournament which will see some countries win qualification places for the World Cup and European Championships.

The competition, which would be played biennially in odd-numbered years on the dates currently reserved for friendlies, is expected to be given the go-ahead by Uefa's Congress in Kazakhstan today after receiving backing from the body's ruling executive committee yesterday.

The exact format has still to be confirmed but, essentially, it will mean all the European nations being split into divisions with, for instance, England being in the top division alongside the likes of Spain, Germany and Italy.

It is thought there will be four divisions and the make-up of each will be decided by using the current national team coefficient. Each division will be divided into groups with the winners of the groups in the top division qualifying for a 'Final Four' tournament where semi-finals and a final would be played at neutral venues over the course of several days.

Northern Ireland are ranked 39 by Uefa and with Scotland and Wales 31 and 34 respectively it is possible that the home nations could be in the same division, before groups are decided.

A huge plus point is that winners of the lower division competitions may be granted entry into the finals of the European Championships or World Cup if they miss out in the qualifying for those tournaments which will continue as normal.

It is a back door system that could be beneficial for Northern Ireland.

The League of Nations is scheduled to begin after the 2018 World Cup and promises to award the four qualification spots for the World Cup and European Championships that are currently decided by the play-offs.

There will also be some friendly dates kept to allow smaller countries to arrange high-profile fixtures and for countries to play friendlies against others from outside the continent.

Shaw said: "It is a replacement for friendlies and we would benefit from that in the sense that we would have competitive, organised games.

"The new League of Nations will also have promotion and relegation is very appealing to smaller nations like ourselves. It should be good for Northern Ireland."

Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino said: "What has triggered what is being called the Nations League is the international calendar and the dates for friendly matches.

"We have been looking at optimising the structure of the calendar without bringing in any more dates.

"There are teams everyone wants to play against and other teams who struggle to get the opponents they'd ideally like. For all national associations, the fact is that national team matches are key for their development."

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