Thursday 23 October 2014

Platini's Nations League brainchild will reward underachieving nations

Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30

UEFA President Michel Platini
UEFA President Michel Platini

EURO 2020 really is going to be something special. Not only will the spread across 13 countries remove the central identity that makes a major tournament special, the decision to award wildcards from the new Nations League means that it won't have the continent's best 24 teams either.

Michel Platini's Nations League brainchild splits UEFA's 54 members into four divisions – based on their co-efficient – for a mini-tournament in the autumn of 2018 before the proper qualifying for the 2020 finals gets under way.

The carrot for the lesser nations – who miss out on the lucrative matches involving the continent's big guns – is the confirmation that winners of the four Nations League divisions will get a wildcard entry into Euro 2020.

This means that one of the countries ranked between 37 and 54 in the UEFA co-efficient will progress to the tournament.

Now, this doesn't mean a passage to the finals for the likes of Andorra and the Faroes. They are miles behind the teams at the high end of Division D, with Belarus, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Albania at the top if the line was drawn tomorrow. Essentially, this initiative will reward middle of the road nations who fail in their targets over the next four years.

Perversely, dreadful results in the next two qualifying campaigns would dramatically increase Ireland's chances of making Euro 2020. As it stands, Ireland sit 19th in the UEFA co-efficient, which is calculated on the basis of performances in the previous three qualifying campaigns with 40pc each for the most recent two and 20pc for the other.

With Euro 2012 downgraded from 40pc to 20pc after the next campaign, it means that a poor 2016 campaign for Martin O'Neill to join 2014's misery would send Ireland plummeting down the list. Follow it up with a disastrous attempt to reach Russia in 2018 and the Boys in Green could slip down into the 30s.

Bulgaria, the second seeds in Ireland's World Cup 2010 group, are now 35th, which demonstrates how quickly it is possible to slip down the charts in that middle rump of nations. In theory, come Euro 2020, it will be easier for a team ranked 37th in Europe to reach the finals than it would be for the nation ranked 12th, the bottom spot in Division A. That's a warped logic.

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