It could potentially represent the biggest overhaul in international football since, well, the creation of the World Cup itself nearly a century ago. The proposal by a number of confederations, led by UEFA, to introduce a truly global international football competition along the lines of the UEFA Nations League is bound to have far-reaching implications.
Here's an attempt to make sense of it.
Q: So, the UEFA Nations League -- what's that?
A: Haven't you been paying attention? It's a new UEFA competition for national sides that kicks off in September 2018. Basically, countries get split into four divisions (which UEFA calls "leagues") based on ranking, with 12 teams in the top two leagues, 15 in the third and 16 in the fourth.
Each league gets split into four groups, they play each other home and away and the group winners advance to a "Final Four" while the bottom four are "relegated" to the division below for the next Nations League cycle. They play semifinals and finals and an overall winner in each division is crowned.
Q: So they want to make a global version of this? How would that work?
A: Apparently so. Details are to be determined, but there are a couple of proposals floating around. One of the more credible ones basically mimics the Nations League across each confederation: you play home and away games in your group, and you move up or down at the end of the group stage. If you're in the top league and you win your group, you get to go to a "finals tournament" at the end against the group winners from the rest of the world.
Q: Wait, is this another World Cup? How many teams would be involved in that?
A: Just eight actually, at least at the top. Remember: there are three top division groups in Europe and they'll probably have two for South America, albeit with just three teams each and then one each for Asia, Africa and CONCACAF.
Q: What about Oceania?
A: I figured you'd ask that. They don't get a top division -- not when their best side, New Zealand, is ranked 122 in the world. But they still get to play and participate. The top Oceania group will probably be a fourth-tier group.
Q: What about the other confederations? Care to speculate about how those would work?
A: It's just a proposal right now, but based on FIFA rankings, you'd imagine Asia would have one top league with Iran, Australia, Japan and China, whereas CONCACAF would line up Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Panama. South America would likely have two three-team top leagues: one with, say, Brazil, Colombia and Peru and one with Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
Q: So when they do play this? Won't it wreak havoc with the calendar?
A: They don't think it will. It's six games at most for each group, so they'd play them over the international dates in June and September and then have the "Final Eight" the following year in June. Basically, it's the same dates as before, but instead of playing meaningless friendlies, they'll be playing competitive matches.
Q: So how will the Final Eight work?
A: It's a straight knockout with quarterfinals, semifinal and final. And, I'd assume, it would be hosted somewhere in a neutral venue.
Q: So teams might have to fly halfway around the world to play a single game if they get knocked out in the quarterfinals?
A: Yes. That's one of the potential pitfalls here. And I guess they'll need to make it financially appetizing enough so that Tunisia, for example, are happy to fly to, say, Japan just to lose to Brazil in the quarterfinal. That said, there will be three other losing quarterfinalists, so I guess they could play against them in a friendly. Still, that's not the end of it.
A: Yeah. The long-term idea after all is to have a Final Eight for every division -- including the seventh division at the very bottom of the totem pole. That's where you have countries that aren't even FIFA members but are members of their confederations, like Kiribati, Guadeloupe or Zanzibar. In theory, if they win their groups, they could go to their seventh division Final Eight too. And then you might have an "Elite Eight" involving San Marino, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Djibouti, Seychelles, Tuvalu, East Timor and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Q: Who's going to watch that? And who would want to host that?
A: I don't know, the folks who live there I guess? And I'd assume anybody with a nearby airport, some hotel rooms and two viable pitches would be qualified to host. But the point is that everybody would have something to play for and the games would mean something. For countries who will only get to watch not just a World Cup but a Gold Cup or a Euro or an African Cup of Nations on TV, actually going to a tournament like this would be a big deal.
Truth be told, it's just a proposal at this stage, and I guess this is something they'd need to work out. But there's a broader impetus behind it.
Q: Which is?
A: Well, you want to get countries playing competitive games against teams of equal stature. This does that. At the very top, it means the big boys face other with something meaningful at stake and that generates money -- big money. It also revitalizes the international scene, which can honestly feel rather empty and lame outside of major tournaments (or South American qualifying). It's also a way of making every country, no matter how small, feel part of a greater whole -- something the World Cup doesn't really do since so many simply get knocked out straight away in qualifying.
Q: OK, but it's FIFA so ultimately it's all about the cash, right?
A: Well, it's not quite FIFA actually. The proposal actually comes from UEFA originally. UEFA created the Nations League to give international football a boost and other confederations, namely CONCACAF and Asia, have studied similar proposals. My guess is that at least four of the confederations are on board with it, and I suspect the other two will follow. At that point, FIFA kinda has to go along with it.
And sure, it's about money too. UEFA have shown that by selling broadcast and commercial rights centrally, they can generate big revenues and not just with the Champions' League either, but with internationals too. Obviously, if they can replicate even a fraction of that success on a global scale, then every FA benefits.
Q: It just seems that if you're mobilizing 223 nations -- that's how many there are, counting the non-FIFA members who are members of their confederation -- it's awfully expensive to organize and televise.
A: It is, although remember the groups are regional so that mitigates some of it, and the Final Eights are all in one venue. Plus, all these games are already televised somewhere. And if you consider how much, say, Brazil vs. Germany with something meaningful at stake can generate, that pays for a lot of flights and hotel rooms. There's even talk of maybe getting some sort of global, OTT (Over The Top) sponsor like an Amazon or an Alibaba as a partner to stream everything.
If they weren't confident that it could pay for itself, they wouldn't be doing it.
Q: So when is this going to happen -- if it happens -- and will it be a success?
A: There's talk that it could be as early as 2020, but more realistically, I'd imagine we're looking at 2022. Will it be successful? I don't know: it's really tough to say also because we don't know if the UEFA Nations League will work for the simple reason it hasn't yet taken place.
At the very least, I'd imagine it would be more interesting than the tripe we get served up now in friendly internationals with their 10 substitutions...