Ireland must up their game to reap rewards of Nations League
FAI chief executive John Delaney has welcomed UEFA's decision to ratify a new Nations League, but the implications for Ireland will be very much determined by their performances in the Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualifying campaigns.
The innovation has been introduced with a view to reducing the propensity of friendly matches on the calendar and while supporters will welcome that, the replacements are unlikely to be attractive for Irish supporters unless they do well under Martin O'Neill and break into the bracket of top nations that will really benefit from this venture.
While the centralised TV deal has strengthened the hand of the lesser associations, an idea that threatens to reduce access to the continent's leading names presents another financial challenge. Season tickets have to be sold on the promise of attractive visitors to the Aviva.
It must be stressed that the exact format has yet to be finalised, but the general concept is out there. Essentially, UEFA's 54 member nations will be split into four hierarchical leagues based on their coefficient. Group A will comprise the top 16 teams in Europe as per UEFA's coefficient, which is calculated differently to the FIFA world rankings.
Each group will be divided into pools of three or four teams so each will play four to six games between September and November 2018 – thus delaying the start of Euro 2020 qualifying until March 2019.
A final four competition, involving the four pool winners of group A will take place in 2019, while the carrot for the smaller nations outside group A is the prospect of a wildcard entry into Euro 2020 once the traditional format of qualifying is concluded.
UEFA have suggested that – in another break from the norm – the final play-offs for the 2020 tournament will take place in March, just three months before the competition starts. "Twenty teams will advance from the (regular) qualifying competition to the Euro 2020 finals," UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino told delegates at the association's Congress in Kazakhstan.
"That leaves four extra slots to be filled and they will come from four teams from the Nations League who have not otherwise qualified."
For countries like Ireland, it creates the possibility of a back-door system, and Delaney said that the innovation would carry on into the race to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, with promotion and relegation between the leagues. He says that he welcomes the proposal.
"There will be more competitive games and this League of Nations will be played on a promotion and relegation basis and allow wild card entries to the European Championship and World Cup, so not only will the League of Nations be a separate competition, it will allow access to the Euros and World Cup. So, in other words, if you didn't qualify through the ordinary groups but you win your League of Nations group, you then have a second opportunity to get to a major tournament, so there is a lot of positives."
The concern for Ireland would be poor results in the next two campaigns that would push them down the UEFA coefficient list.
If they sit outside the top 16 in Europe when the cut-off comes around, the Nations League would consist of games against teams of similar profile and they could be a hard sell, with no immediate reward for the winners – just the prospect of a reward or a play-off 18 months down the line.
Ireland are currently 19th in the UEFA list, which is solely measured on performances in the three most recent qualifying campaigns – a contrast from their 68th-placed position in FIFA's global chart.
The enlarged Euro 2016 has made it easier on paper to make that tournament, but it will be extremely hard to make the next World Cup in Russia given there are only 13 places on offer to European nations and the seeding will be based on the FIFA rankings.
The delayed start to the regular Euro 2020 qualifying, which will now be crammed into an eight-month period in March-November 2019, creates the scenario where nations that don't make Russia will have no traditional competitive game between the winter of 2017 and that March '19 kick-off.
That's a long wait without a glamour tie.
"I'm sure the public will look upon these games in a better light," said Delaney.
If Ireland struggle in the next four years, however, they are going to require serious convincing.