Graham Ruthven: Scots can’t afford not to take Nations League seriously

Supporters must realise the importance of a competition that is their team's best chance of qualifying for a major tournament...

Email after email, tweet after tweet, it seems that the Scottish FA have had a tough time selling the idea of the UEFA Nations League to the usually devoted Tartan Army. Some will argue that the price of the tickets has put many off, but while that point holds some weight it doesn’t fully explain why such apathy is being felt for international football’s newest competition.

Others might argue that an opening game against Albania, to be played at Hampden next Monday, was never likely to capture the imagination. The Scottish FA’s promotional material has attempted to build up the hype, but few are buying into it, as demonstrated by an apparent abundance of seats still available for next week’s game.

Maybe someone should mention to the Scotland support that the UEFA Nations League means their team is just four winnable games away from the Euro 2020 play-offs. European football’s newest international competition might be convoluted, but when all is broken down, that is what it means to Scotland.

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In theory, this presents the Dark Blues with their best possible chance of making it to the European Championships in two years’ time. Due to their ranking, Scotland would be grouped with at least one heavyweight in a conventional qualification group. For Euro 2016, for instance, they were paired with world champions Germany, Poland and Republic of Ireland in their qualification group.

However, the format of the UEFA Nations League means that Scotland will be grouped with teams of a more similar stature.

The inaugural 2018/19 tournament has drawn Alex McLeish’s side against Albania and Israel, two teams Scotland should be confident of beating both home and away. Beyond that, they would face a play-off against another country of a similar quality and stature, with the winner heading to Euro 2020.

Scotland can’t afford to be snobby about the UEFA Nations League. There might be questions to be asked regarding the long term feasibility of the competition, but Scotland haven’t made it to a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup. The carrot of Euro 2020 gives them something to chase, starting with Monday night’s home opener against Albania.

For bigger footballing nations like England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the UEFA Nations League doesn’t offer much. After all, the incentive of Euro 2020 qualification doesn’t mean much to teams that were already likely to qualify through the conventional process. In these particular cases, there might not be much difference between the UEFA Nations League and the friendly matches it was designed to replace.

It’s lower down the footballing ladder where the heart and soul of UEFA’s new competition will be found, though. Scotland embody this. The UEFA Nations League gives them an alternative, and perhaps more feasible, route to a major tournament. They might not have a better chance of making it to the Euros.

“The Albania game, that game for me is a game where we, I don’t like to use that phrase “must win,” but it is,” McLeish explained ahead of Friday’s friendly against Belgium and next week’s Nations League opener. “It’s only a small group. We’re here at Hampden and we will be pulling out all the stops, leaving no stones unturned to get these guys a victory in that game.”

Scotland stagnated as a group under Gordon Strachan, but still came close to making the World Cup playoffs.

McLeish is now charged with taking the Dark Blues into a new era, with Andy Robertson as the country’s new captain and the likes of Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, John Souttar, Scott McKenna, John McGinn and Oli McBurnie giving Scotland a promising base for the future.

The first test of that new generation won’t come in the qualification campaign, but in the UEFA Nations League, because for countries like Scotland it is essentially another qualification campaign. Once that seeps into the public consciousness, the Scottish FA might not have to try so hard to flog tickets.

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