In 2016, Portugal triumphed in the European Championships and in doing so collected their first ever major honour in international football. A nation with a population of just 10.3m, the victory was no mean feat and sparked mass celebrations across the country. Three years later and A Seleção das Quinas were celebrating again, this time by triumphing in the inaugural Nations League tournament.
The jubilation was never going to be quite as grand as it had been when Portugal triumphed in Paris over host nation France. The European Championships are the Promised Land for UEFA’s international teams and the national tournament with the most prestige outside of the World Cup. Yet the Nations League, met with a great deal of scepticism in its embryonic stage, has already made great strides in establishing itself as the sister competition.
Plans were announced for the tournament in 2013 and despite initial concerns over its complexity — which tends to be the case with any semi-radical change to the football calendar — the reality has proven remarkably simple. Nations are separated into four tiers, then divided internally into groups (Leagues) of three or four. Group winners are promoted and those who finish bottom are relegated, while the four group winners of the top tier — League A — qualify for the finals.
Initial fears of a convoluted system were swiftly forgotten, with the tournament delivering exciting clashes between well-matched teams in which nearly every game carried a degree of significance. While seeing top teams regularly go head-to-head naturally demanded greater attention, it was equally interesting to see how League D — comprised of UEFA’s 16 lowest-ranked nations — fared when competing directly against each other, and not against a more illustrious opponent who would inevitably defeat them comfortably.
Indeed, promoters of the Nations League concept insisted the competition would help less glamorous national associations arrange games while also disproportionately boosting their organisations financially. Regardless of the numbers behind such PR statements, the competition replaced meaningless friendlies and added an edge to international football, which has undoubtedly been a huge positive. The four nations who qualified for the inaugural finals were somewhat surprising. There was no place for world champions France, nor for formidable Spain or Germany teams. Beaten World Cup finalists Croatia also missed out alongside the world’s No 1 ranked side by FIFA, Belgium. Instead, hosts Portugal made their own finals alongside England, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Aside from the Three Lions, the three other semi-finalists had a combined population of just 35m — these were nations who have maximised their talent pool to the fullest. The one slight downfall to the concept of this tournament was that it included just four matches, of which one — the third-placed playoff — held no real significance. This was all going to be about the fine margins and Portugal’s home advantage along with being involved in the first semi-final, thus giving them an extra 24 hours of rest for the showpiece, undoubtedly helped them to the title.
Yet there can be few complaints that the best side won the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo typically produced a vintage decisive display in the semi-final against Switzerland, netting a hat-trick to blow away Vladimir Petković’s well-drilled and impressive outfit. Major international tournaments always attract iconic moments and whilst this tournament is still in its fledgling form, few will forget the 34-year-old’s ruthlessness in front of goal.
Just as the host nation won 3-1, the Netherlands joined them in the showpiece by triumphing with the same score line against England after extra time. Marcus Rashford won and scored a penalty to give Gareth Southgate’s side a great deal of hope. However, in-demand Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt atoned for his defensive error in the opening goal to level for the Dutch.
Just as there had been in Portugal’s victory, the ever-evolving nature of football was on display with VAR drama. In the first semi-final, Switzerland were awarded a contentious penalty following on from a video review in which — after the initial play had been allowed to develop, before being brought back — the hosts won a penalty of their own, which was annulled. The drama for England was even greater, as Jesse Lingard thought he had restored their lead late on before his effort was ruled out for the midfielder being a fraction offside.
As it was, the Dutch were the stronger team on the night and this superiority eventually told in added time as Kyle Walker inadvertently put through his own net before Sevilla forward Quincy Promes added gloss to the score line in the closing minutes.
International tournaments always have penalty shootout drama and this summer was no different, even if it was confined to the third-place playoff. England and Switzerland played out a scoreless draw over two hours before the Three Lions edged out the shootout — with goalkeeper Jordan Pickford the hero as he saved the final penalty after emphatically netting from the spot himself.
But this was Portugal’s tournament and they were suitably crowned champions thanks to Goncalo Guedes’s winning strike in the showpiece. Despite enjoying just 43% of possession in the game, the hosts created opportunities — registering 18 shots on goal compared to just four of the Dutch, with eight of the total shots on target coming from the locals.
The victory was a highly satisfying achievement if not one producing the total euphoria of three years prior. The players clearly enjoyed the victory — with Ronaldo lifting the trophy aloft and player of the tournament Bernardo Silva, of Manchester City, among the stars enjoying the adulation of the evening. This is a biennial tournament and in just over a year from now the entire process will start all over again. The increased regularity of the competition — twice the frequency of both the European Championships and World Cup — should hasten its rise into the wider football consciousness. Glitches should swiftly be ironed out and the importance of the results, directly impacting world rankings and chances of qualifying for other tournaments, will become clearer. UEFA’s inaugural Nations League tournament has undoubtedly proven a success.