Only the bold. Only the brave. Only the great. The Nations League! There was an air of bafflement when Uefa unveiled its operatic Nations League anthem two years ago. Here it was, a prancingly self-important hymn to a format built to pad the ends of the commercial calendar; for a trophy that resembled at first glance an oversized tinfoil kebab-wrap mounted on a saucepan lid.
Fast-forward to the end of the first of them, one thing is clear. This piecemeal, slightly muted add-on to the international schedule has been a success, and in more ways than just on the pitch or in the ledger.
Nations League 2019 brought us a fitting flourish too, as Portugal and the Netherlands played out a fun, occasionally frisky end. Finals are supposed to carry some gravitas. They are not supposed to be full of goals either. This one obliged on both fronts. As the trophy was paraded for a basking home support, victory for Portugal seemed like an extended coronation for football’s current age of Iberia, not to mention another note in the legend of Cristiano.
It was a fun evening all-round. The opening ceremony was agreeably short, free of warbling songsters or pop-up stages being manically disassembled. The Estádio do Dragão is a lovely ground, a vast concrete spaceship with a floating roof propped on huge flat colonnades at both ends.
It was a breezy, fragrant place before kick-off. Don’t Take Me Home, the Portuguese crowd seemed to sing as the Dutch end unfurled their St George’s cross flags with their references to Grimsby and Bristol and Doncaster. Except, of course, this turned out to be a three-way crowd split, with England’s huge travelling support doing Uefa a favour by filling out their allocation.
They saw a game that grew from stodgy beginnings until the two teams were finally split by Gonçalo Guedes’ shot on the hour mark, the only goal of a good-to-middling final. And so here we are. It is finally done, an extended schlep that has taken in 142 games and which has played out smoothly around that puzzling format of tiebreakers, draw seedings, double match-days and play-off paths.
At the end of it we know that England are the third-best nation. San Marino are 55th out of 55. Scotland are 25th. World champions France are only sixth best (désolé).
There has been a sense of mobility between these ersatz mini-leagues. We saw Germany relegated from group A to B, which was no doubt a terrible shock. There were some inscrutable 0-0 draws back in the autumn (Latvia 0-0 Andorra; Azerbaijan 0-0 Kosovo). But it was also wild at times. Netherlands 3-0 Germany; Switzerland 5-1 Belgium; Spain 6-0 Croatia: these were frisky, vital fixtures.
Some will scoff at the intensity of a bolted-on occasion. But the fact remains that winning the Nations League would have been a bigger footballing achievement for England than reaching a World Cup semi-final. One that would have meant beating Croatia, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, a roll-call of genuine A-listers.
No surprise then that they did not. There was joy for England’s players in Guimarães after the shoot-out defeat of the Swiss. But this was also their 15th competitive game in less than 12 months. By the end England looked all played out, a team who have crested a wave, but where the players have been squeezed by relentless scheduling on all fronts.
And in defeat England looked like what they are, a decent team who have become adept at disguising their weaknesses – right up until the moment they face opponents good enough to draw them out. Southgate’s England is an experiment, a set of slogans made flesh. The FA decided there would be an English way, a DNA, and that the DNA would look like this.
It is an exercise in control and planning. But it is not innate or automatic yet, as the Netherlands demonstrated over 120 minutes. They play the same system but better, doing so from a shared cultural memory bank rather than a glossy book and a powerpoint show.
Who will have the fortune and glory? The anthem poses another good question here. To Portugal the glory. But the fortune has been well spread. A total of €112.875m in prize money has been disbursed widely by Uefa. England have earned close to €10m from their run, a bonus equal to one quarter of the Scottish FA’s complete annual turnover.
And money is, of course, the key to all this. International football has been perilously placed for the last few years. These are interesting times, from the debaucheries of the House of Blatter to the more destiny-fuelled stylings of the age of Infantino, with plans that could even now see the whole supporting infrastructure re-geared around mystery multi-billionaire investors.
Which way will football jump? Perhaps this small but successful addition might just act as a bulwark, a stop on one or two of those plans. Maybe the point about the Nations League is that it rules out other things that might bring even more money and greater change, filling the space that could let them happen.
A welcome addition on balance but also perhaps a useful one.