In September 2018, European countries are starting a new tournament, which they are calling the Nations League. The idea is to replicate the excitement of the qualifying tournaments for the World Cup and European championships by introducing a new competition that will fill up the rest of the international soccer calendar, replacing the exhibition games that international teams now play. The rest of FIFA liked Europe’s idea so much that it seems likely that it will do the same thing on a regional basis.
This is a bad idea, one that will make international soccer worse. To see why, you only have to look at the United States.
The World Cup is meaningful, in part, because it comes around only once every four years. American fans’ despondence over the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was based mostly on realizing it would be a half-decade before the team would have another chance to play in the big time. Qualifying games are more meaningful and more exciting precisely because of the scarcity of the World Cup.
That’s not the way the minds of soccer administrators work, though. If CONCACAF, the governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, ran the NFL, there would be four Super Bowls every winter, and a fifth one every summer. All that matters is the revenue; tournament quality, or whether anyone cares, is secondary.
This is why CONCACAF holds a Gold Cup every other summer, and why there will probably be another Pan-American version of the Copa America in 2020, too. It’s all about the cash, and whether anyone even cares about the tournament isn’t a concern. CONCACAF’s biggest countries sent JV teams to this summer’s Gold Cup. Even the teams themselves couldn’t be bothered to care, never mind the fans.
One reason soccer is the world’s most popular sport is that it’s the only one that has managed to strike a balance between club and international competitions. Club soccer provides the daily drama around the world. The World Cup and the European championships are quadrennial showpieces, meaningful in part because they don’t come around very often. Soccer fans can only care so much. Add more tournaments, and it just reduces the amount they care about any one thing.
UEFA, the European governing body, is selling the Nations League as an attempt to make previously meaningless friendlies into something meaningful. But just holding a competition and awarding a trophy doesn’t make a tournament meaningful. Ask anyone in CONCACAF, the home of meaningless tournaments.
When it comes to international soccer, less is more. Given the money that can be made from TV contracts and ticket sales, no administrator would ever admit this. The Nations League, wherever it’s introduced in the world, is another step toward ruining soccer’s greatness.
• Zygi and Mark Wilf, the owners of the Vikings, appear to be one step closer to Major League Soccer ownership after losing out on the chance for Minnesota’s MLS team. The Nashville City Council approved a $275 million stadium project for the city’s fairgrounds, a move that no doubt makes the city much more attractive to the league. The Wilfs, along with Nashville businessman John Ingram, are key parts of the potential Nashville ownership group. The stadium plan might make Nashville a favorite to earn an expansion team this winter.
• It sounds like MLS will begin to change its transfer rules this offseason — for example, letting teams keep 100 percent of the money they make when selling a homegrown player to another team. MLS’ arcane rules sometimes discourage teams from selling players, which is bad for everyone involved.
• Another testament to Atlanta United’s popularity: Midfielder Miguel Almiron had the most popular jersey, in terms of sales, in 2017, and striker Josef Martinez was third. Christian Ramirez was the only Loon in the top 25, coming in 17th. Atlanta had five players in the top 25, while the Seattle Sounders had six.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup qualifying: Ireland at Denmark, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, FS2. The Danes are big favorites to qualify, but Ireland has the advantage of playing Tuesday’s second leg at home. Expect the Irish to play for a solid defensive performance and to try to steal a goal on the counterattack, or at least try to get out of Denmark without being overrun.
World Cup qualifying: Northern Ireland at Switzerland, 11 a.m. Sunday, ESPNEWS. Switzerland has the clear advantage, with a 1-0 lead from the first leg (thanks to an awful call by the referee that awarded the Swiss a penalty). Northern Ireland was outplayed at home. Now “Norn Iron” will need a near-miracle on the road to make it to Russia.
World Cup qualifying: Croatia at Greece, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, ESPNEWS. Croatia leads 4-1 after a series of Greek defensive mistakes helped put one Croatian foot in the World Cup. Croatia had one of the best defensive records in qualifying, allowing just four goals in 10 games. Ninety more minutes of defense is all that separates them from qualification.
NASL Soccer Bowl: New York at San Francisco, 7 p.m. Sunday, beIN. This could well be the final game of the newest incarnation of the NASL. San Francisco will almost certainly go out of business at the end of the year, win or lose. The Cosmos nearly folded last year and could do so again. If this is the end, it’d be appropriate if New York won another title.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org