We've entered a new era in soccer. It's the debut of the UEFA Nations League, a competition of national teams played throughout the continent. There's everything from England-Spain at Wembley in the league's top division to Liechtenstein-Gibraltar in Vaduz in the bottom one. Meanwhile, international soccer officials are plotting to spread the Nations League across the planet. The idea is that every continent would host its own Nations League, and these would culminate in something even more interesting: a Global Nations League for the winners from each continent.
This is a big deal -- so big, in fact, it might one day even marginalize the World Cup.
The Nations League would mostly change the sport for the better. National-team soccer, overshadowed by clubs for at least 10 months a year, aims to come roaring back. So what is happening, and why?
About five years ago, some officials at the European soccer association UEFA, including its then secretary general, Gianni Infantino, cooked up the UEFA Nations League. The plan was to clear out the dead space in international soccer. For decades, Europe's national teams spent too much time playing languid friendly matches or dreary qualifiers: Germany thrashes San Marino, France beats Luxembourg, and nobody cares.
The UEFA Nations League will be more competitive and exciting. It divides countries into four divisions, based on strength. The top division this fall includes groups like France-Germany-Netherlands and Spain-Croatia-England. In the fourth division, you'll find groups such as Azerbaijan-Faroe Islands-Malta-Kosovo.
In June, the four winners of the top groups will play off to see who wins the Nations League. The tournament will also help allocate some qualifying spots for Euro 2020. Everyone will have something to play for: teams that finish bottom of their group in the Nations League will get relegated; in the lower tiers, the top teams will get promoted.
Fans will probably love it. Far more people care about national teams than clubs: TV audiences for big World Cup matches dwarf those for big Champions League matches. The only problem is the lack of supply of top-class international soccer. England and Spain, for instance, haven't met in a competitive match since 1996. Their encounter at Wembley on Saturday will have fans buzzing worldwide.
The Nations League won't mean more games for international players, just better games. If it succeeds, the format could quickly become unstoppable. CONCACAF, the confederation for North and Central America, has decided to launch its Nations League in 2019. The biggest Asian federations are thought to want a version, too.
Then the winners of each continental league would meet in the global Nations League. Imagine a short eight-team tournament once every two years featuring, say, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, the U.S., Morocco, France, Spain and Germany. It would replace the mostly ignored, lossmaking and frankly pathetic Confederations Cup.
The only question is who would own the Global Nations League. When the Europeans of UEFA came up with the idea, they wanted to organise it among continental confederations, leaving almost no role for FIFA. But then Infantino, who in 2016 had become president of FIFA, decided to kidnap the plan. He saw the Global Nations League as a new source of funds for FIFA, which has long been almost a single-product company: it gets 90 percent of its revenues from the men's World Cup. And FIFA needs cash, given that it has lost several mostly Western sponsors following its corruption scandals.
By this spring, a consortium of huge investors had agreed to put up $25 billion to fund Nations League on every continent, plus the Global Nations League and a bigger, better Club World Cup. Infantino called it "the -- by far -- highest investment soccer has ever seen."
Under FIFA's plan, the eight countries that played in the Global Nations League could expect to make $37.5 million to $75 million each. For comparison: Germany got $4.1 million for winning last year's Confederations Cup. In return for all this lovely new cash, the consortium expected to control Nations Leagues until 2033. However, in true opaque FIFA tradition, Infantino refused to reveal who his funders were. At a meeting in Bogota, Colombia, in March, he nonetheless pressured FIFA's ruling council to rubber-stamp his plan within 60 days. The council said no, for the moment. UEFA was irritated, too. "We had an idea about a possible Global Nations League," its president, Aleksander Ceferin, told the German magazine Kicker. "We first presented it to the FIFA president, then to national associations and to clubs. And all of a sudden FIFA comes and says they are ready to sell it, our idea, to a fund without any explanations. It is really a strange offer."
Meanwhile, my colleagues at the Financial Times newspaper broke through the shroud of nondisclosure agreements to reveal that FIFA's scheme was funded by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank with other investors from China and Saudi Arabia. In reality, most of the influence is Saudi. The soccer-mad petro-state is jealous of its tiny neighbour Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup. The Saudis want to make a landgrab of their own, including hosting the first Global Nations League. Infantino is a frequent visitor to the Gulf state, where he has become chummy with the ruling young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman ("MBS").
Given the squabble over ownership, the Global Nations League may not even happen. If it does -- and the idea is so lucrative that it probably will -- it wouldn't start until about 2022. But once the global event embeds itself in the calendar, it has the potential to surpass the World Cup in prestige and attention (much as the World Cup from 1930 surpassed the Olympic soccer tournament).
Right now, the World Cup is by some estimates the most watched event of any kind. But its status is shakier than it looks. Its average audience per match has fallen this century in countries such as Portugal, Spain and Argentina, chiefly because many games have disappeared from free-to-air TV onto pay channels.
And FIFA has made another decision that seems almost designed to put off fans: starting in 2026, it is expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.
The Euros, also recently expanded, have shown that more means worse. The average group game at 24-team Euro 2016 attracted 23 percent fewer viewers than at 16-team Euro 2012, according to consultancy Futures Sport. That was partly because most of the eight additional qualifiers were weak teams playing defensive soccer. At Euro 2016, average goals per game dropped to 2.12, a 20-year-low for the competition. A 48-team World Cup will probably also feature lots of boring Cinderellas. There simply aren't enough good national teams to justify such a big tournament. This summer's World Cup showed that Africa and Asia, in particular, don't deserve more berths: only one of these continents' 10 representatives, Japan, even squeaked into the second round.
"There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting soccer in a country than participating in a World Cup," Infantino has said. But not if it's a dull World Cup, which would be outshone in quality by a Global Nations League. Viewers may get into the habit of watching the World Cup only from the knockout stage. And very few countries have the stadiums to host a 48-team competition.
FIFA expanded the World Cup chiefly for the money. The bigger tournament will produce more income from broadcasters, sponsors and ticket sales. Much of that cash will go to the 211 national federations. But a bigger World Cup means a diminished World Cup. Luckily, fans should be able to console themselves with the Global Nations League. Its winners may eventually come to be regarded as the true world champions.
A decade from now, we may look back on September 2018 as the month that soccer changed ... for the better.