It’s not every year we get to experience the birth of a new footballing tournament, so the debut of the UEFA Nations League this week has been something to savour.
Developed primarily as a way to diminish the number of pointless international friendlies, the new competition gives actual meaning to games, particularly between the continent’s elite.
During the opening week alone, we’ve been given the opportunity to enjoy stand-out fixtures such as Germany vs France, France vs Netherlands, and the one everyone wanted to see: Kazakhstan vs Georgia.
England make their debut in the new biennial tournament at Wembley on Saturday evening, taking on Luis Enrique’s Spain.
Now, the cynical among you will see the creation of the Nations League as just another way of trying to add credibility to international football – something that’s waned significantly over the last 20 years thanks to the immense growth and popularity of the Premier League and Champions League.
But how wrong that view is.
Far from being a glorified friendly, England are entering into a brave new world.
As they take to the Wembley pitch on Saturday night, they’ll be readying themselves for what is quite simply the biggest fixture in the country’s history.
Nobody does it quite like the English… GET IN!!!! 🏴🏴🏴 pic.twitter.com/14rfDpzGoG
— The Away Fans Videos (@TheAwayFansVids) July 3, 2018
1. They must capitalise on renewed interest in the team
The giant wave of optimism that flooded the country during the summer came courtesy of the first memorable England World Cup campaign in a generation – and all the increasingly ludicrous “It’s Coming Home” memes that came with it.
Hope and interest in the national team was reborn. Suddenly, the usual frustrations of an international break arriving just as the Premier League kicks into gear is gone. Replacing it is genuine excitement to see Slabhead and co do battle once again.
Pubs will be busy, televisions will be tuned in, and it’s a vitally important chance to keep the renewed support for the national team rolling.
Do that, and this England team will continue to grow as they approach future major tournaments and seek real glory.
2. It’s a brand new start for the country
However expectant England fans may be going into major tournaments, they are always viewed through the prism of disappointment from yesteryear. Every World Cup brings back the pangs of agony from 1990’s heartbreak, and in future that will be replaced by 2018’s missed opportunity.
And when the travelling footballing circus that will be Euro 2020 rolls around, you can be sure the penalty shootout disappointment of Euro 96 will be brought up.
That’ll be particularly relevant given the 2020 semis and final are being held at one of Tottenham Hotspur’s many grounds (that’s Wembley, by the way).
So the beauty of the Nations League is that there is no history to compare it to: it’s a clean slate in competitive tournament football for the Three Lions.
There are no ghosts of footballing past to torment us. Our exciting new team can enter an exciting new tournament with optimism, and get a shiny new trophy at the end of it.
3. It gives us another chance to qualify for Euro 2020
Should our actual Euro 2020 qualifiers all go a bit Pete Tong, our performance in the Nations League could give us salvation. This is where things get a little tricky (someone at UEFA must thrive off making things complicated), but allow us to explain…
Each of the Nations League’s four leagues will get four Euro 2020 play-off places allocated to it. These are then allocated to the teams that finish highest in each Nations League group, yet did not make Euro 2020 through normal qualification.
So if England were to win their Nations League group, but completely cock up Euro 2020 qualification, they’ll get another go in the play-offs. Simple, right?
Winning Euro 2020 is an achievable target for England given the fixture locations, so qualification is an absolute must – and good Nations League performance could well be the key.
4. The future of Wembley could be at stake
Winning their group will be worth up to €3m to the FA, and that meatball gets even spicier if they’re to do well in next summer’s finals.
The overall winner of the inaugural competition will receive an extra €4.5m in cold, hard definitely-not-illicitly-sourced UEFA cash. That figure decreases by a million each for second, third and fourth placed teams.
Given how much the FA has been banging on about getting more money into grassroots football – so much so they want to sell Wembley – the financial importance of the Nations League is brought bang in to focus.
If England were to go all the way, the €7.5m they’d pocket could go back into the game where it needs it most. Meaning Wembley could be kept out of the hands of NFL full-time.
5. The fashion world depends on it
It’s safe to say Southgatemania took hold during the World Cup, with his now iconic M&S waistcoat getting as many column inches as the team itself.
It sparked a fashion frenzy, leading to what will inevitably go down in history as The Great Waistcoat Drought of 2018.
The nation’s eyes will be locked on the gaffer this weekend as we wait to see what he’s sporting. Will the trademark waistcoat stay? Will there be a snazzy new twist or colour? Or will he have something new on altogether? Never will a football match have such an impact on the fashion industry.
So brace yourselves, England fans. Never has a fixture been more important for the health of the national football team. Bring it on!