When Uefa introduced the Nations League competition in 2018, Europe’s governing football body did so to ensure that countries would play competitive matches in between major tournaments.
And, certainly, looking at the upcoming fixtures, there are plenty of clashes for football fans worldwide to look forward to as England take on Belgium next Sunday at Wembley Stadium, the same day Portugal face Les Bleus in the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.
But, despite the expectations, the league is seen by Europe’s strongest teams as the poorer cousin, compared with the Euros and the World Cup.
England coach Gareth Southgate called up three newcomers to his squad to face Belgium and Denmark in the Nations League, as well as Wales in an international friendly on Thursday.
England are second in Group 1 – two points behind Belgium – and can’t afford to lose against Roberto Martínez’s side, who might be without Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard, following his muscle injury.
Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who tops the Premier League scorer charts with Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy on five goals, has been rewarded for his exploits, while 22-year-old Harvey Barnes has helped Leicester to an early lead in the English top flight.
Teenager Bukayo Saka, meanwhile, was called up by Southgate after turning down Nigeria.
“I’ve not talked specifically to Bukayo about that. I think many of our players are eligible for dual nationality, sometimes for more than two countries,” coach Southgate said.
The 19-year-old, who’s been in fine form for Arsenal on the left flank this season, can play left-back or in a more attacking role, prompting Southgate to say Saka would add to his options on the left side.
“We’ve been impressed with his progress through our system. He’s still very young and still learning, of course, but improving all the time. He has high potential and really good quality.
“Everybody who’s worked with him tells me he’s a very level-headed, intelligent boy. So it’s an area of the pitch where we’re keen to look at a different profile of player. Bukayo can play a number of different roles very comfortably,” said Southgate.
Not surprisingly, Southgate has left out Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden after the two were dropped from the squad last month for breaking Covid-19 safety protocols by bringing women into the team hotel.
“We have to send a message to all our players in our teams at every age level that that sort of thing isn’t how we do things with England. We’ve got to rehabilitate these two boys. Young people will make mistakes,” said Southgate.
However, he added that there was a way back for them: “These lads have suffered enough now. I think they need this period of reflection, but that gives them the opportunity to get back on their feet with their clubs and enjoy their football again. I can speak to them after this camp and it will just be about their form then.”
In Group 1, the table-topping Italians are at home against the Netherlands on October 14 in a match that – should they win – will take them very close to making the final tournament, for which the four group winners qualify.
The Group of Death – Group 3, which has the two 2018 World Cup finalists France and Croatia, as well as defending Nations League winner Portugal and Sweden – sees Portugal and France leading with two wins from two games ahead of their first encounter next Sunday.
Germany and Spain were expected to make the running in Group 4, but Joachim Löw’s team have drawn both their opening matches and are only third behind Spain and Ukraine, whom they take on in Kiev on Saturday.
In recognition of the worldwide pandemic, football’s governing body Fifa has changed its rules, saying players don’t have to be released if they have to go into quarantine for five days or more after returning.
Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp has, however, said that he remains unconvinced.
“I really don’t want to sound disrespectful, but we don’t know too much about what other countries are doing. At this time, I think everybody wants their family around them.
“If your son or daughter asked if they could travel here or there, you’d say: ‘Oh, I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do at the moment.’ It’s a bit like the football players.
“I’m not saying the UK is the safest place in the world, but it’s at least a place we know and where we also know how to deal with different scenarios. So, yes, I’m slightly concerned,” he said.
“It’s difficult to get in touch with all the football associations around the world. I really understand 100% the demands on everybody, including Uefa and Fifa. I know how difficult the situation is for everybody. It’s just not exactly perfect, the information we get from some associations.”