By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
The third edition of the UEFA Nations League kicks off Thursday in cities all over Europe, with every match broadcast across the FOX Sports family of networks (and streamed on the FOX Sports app).
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2022-23 tournament.
Why the UEFA Nations League matters
Designed to replace meaningless international friendly games, UEFA — global soccer’s largest regional governing body, with 55 member nations — introduced the biennial Nations League following the 2018 World Cup.
The idea was simple enough: provide more competitive games for both Europe’s top teams and its minnows to fill the two-year gap between the World Cup and European Championship. While the Euros is a quadrennial, month-long event typically hosted by a single country when club soccer goes dark during the summer months, the Nations League, with participants split into first- and second-class divisions (with promotion and relegation between the two), plays out over almost an entire calendar year.
While the competition was initially met with skepticism by traditionalists, the first two editions didn’t disappoint.
Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to the inaugural title over the Netherlands in 2019 in front of a packed stadium in Porto. Then in 2021, World Cup-holder France won it all, beating then-FIFA No. 1-rankied Belgium in the semis before topping Spain in a thrilling finale in Milan. All six teams that medaled from 2019 to 2021 previously won the World Cup, Euros, or both.
Those early returns have given the Nations League some juice. The event also offers another incentive beyond the trophy: an opportunity for teams that fail to qualify outright for 2024 Euros in Germany to make it, with three additional spots up for grabs.
Marquee games galore
The first day of the competition Thursday serves up a delicious match between Iberian rivals Spain and Portugal (2:45 p.m. ET, FS1). It only gets better from there, with Belgium and the Netherlands facing off the next day.
Other high-profile encounters follow early next week, beginning with Monday’s rematch of the 2018 World Cup final between Croatia and France (2:45 p.m. ET, FS1). Longtime foes Germany and England then take center stage Tuesday.
The fourth and final match on June 14 sees Germany and Italy meet for the second time in fewer than 10 days, this time in Monchengladbach.
The “league” stage resumes in September, when it will double as the final prep for the European teams headed to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Four squads from the top division will advance to the 2023 Nations League Finals next June.
It’s only going to get bigger
As the Nations League transitions from the novel curiosity it was four years ago to an established staple on the international soccer calendar, its importance will only grow.
Coming on the heels of a pandemic-ravaged two years, the 2022-23 version promises to be the best one yet. Reservations about the somewhat convoluted format have given way to genuine anticipation for must-see rivalry matches — with a coveted piece of silverware at stake at the end — between many of the sport’s most decorated national teams.
As the Nations League’s stature continues to rise, it could soon feature all of them. Last December, UEFA Vice President Zbigniew Boniek revealed plans for the Nations League to include Argentina, Brazil and the other eight members of South American confederation CONMEBOL starting in 2024.
It wouldn’t be the first time one region has asked nations from another to compete in a continental championship. Both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF — soccer’s governing body in North and Central America and the Caribbean — have a long history of fielding guest teams in the Copa America and Gold Cup, respectively.
Nothing has been finalized yet, but a joint venture between Europe’s and South America’s best would be next-level. It would also turn the Nations League into a household name around the world — if it isn’t one already.
One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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