When UEFA announced that they were replacing international friendlies with a region-wide tournament of matches that would dually serve as qualifying for the 2020 European Championships, Europe’s governing soccer body shook up the hierarchy of world soccer. No longer would countries from other regions be able to schedule interesting (and profitable) friendlies against the top Euro nations; instead, countries like Germany and Spain would be tied up with this UEFA Nations Leage, leaving the other confederations to fend for themselves. Unsurprisingly, those other confederations were pissed, and now FIFA is considering something that could very well change the way international soccer is played around the globe.
Reports allege that FIFA will look into instituting a similar Nations League, but for every confederation. The so-called World League would function like any individual country’s soccer pyramid: 3 divisions, with nations sorted into them by quality. The matches would be played out over a whole year, during international breaks, with promotion and relegation systems in play. This would mean that Argentina and Germany wouldn’t have to wait until the World Cup to possibly rematch their classic 2014 final in a match that “matters” more than friendlies; they would likely play a home-and-away series within the World League. That’s just one scenario, of course, but it illustrates both the advantages and the possible downfall of such an experiment.
First off, the good news: this would be a godsend for both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, players and countries alike. For Europe-based players, this would minimize the amount of trans-Atlantic flying that would be done in the name of friendlies. That’s something that seems like it could be solved by the marvels of modern air travel, but it’s such an issue that there have been instances of Premier League clubs teaming up to get private jets for their South American players, to return them to England more comfortably. If Argentina were to have, say, two friendlies in England and Italy in one break, the albiceleste players based in Europe could take the short flight, rather than traveling to the Americas for matches against, say, Chile and Paraguay.
However, with that good news comes the bad: those flights would not be eliminated, because it appears that World Cup qualifying would be independent of the World League. So Argentina would still need to make those trips to Chile and Paraguay every few months, but on top of that, they would have World League matches that add yet another intense competition to the schedule. There are ways around that, most likely by suspending the World League in the year before the World Cup (although that would mean that there are only two seasons every cycle, since it’s unlikely that it would be held during a World Cup year). But what do you do with a Euro year? Or a Copa America summer? The addition of another grueling tournament would definitely put an additional stress on players’ bodies, if the World League is taken as seriously as the World Cup.
And that’s really the question at the end of the road here: will the World League matter? Or will teams use it like the Confederations Cup, as a way to try out new players and strategies for the future? After all, friendlies are currently where players can step up and make their mark to be taken to international tournaments. Will countries be happy sacrificing that experimentation in order to take certainties to World League matches? Or will they treat it as a blow-off break from the club season? There’s no way to tell now, at least not if the qualifying for the World Cup remains independent from the league.
FIFA has been dealing with international friendlies as a problem for years now. Fans simply don’t care for having their club seasons break at random times during the year just so international teams can build some chemistry that will likely be lost in the lead-up to the next international tournament. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has made this a mission of sorts, to solve the lull of the non-qualifying international break, and this supposed World League is a step in the right direction. If countries buy in, it could also give smaller sides a chance at international glory currently held, mostly, for the cream of the crop. It might not be a World Cup title, but surely, a team like Venezuela would be thrilled if they over-performed and won the second division of the World League, no? Or a side like Peru, usually solid and no more, could put together a magical run where they win the first division ahead of much more heralded sides, a la Leicester City in the Premier League.
That kind of intrigue is what Infantino and co. are surely looking to build, and if they iron out the kinks, the World League could be that solution. At the very least, countries outside of the UEFA power bloc would not be left out in the cold with few marquee opponents. As world soccer grows into even more of a financial powerhouse, every dollar counts for these countries, including those from much-maligned friendlies.