I could just Google it. In fact, I’m surprised the information hasn’t filtered through to my consciousness via group chats, the internet or general osmosis. But despite being obsessed with football, I still have no idea what the Nations League is.
The last Premier League season was one of the greatest of all time in terms of quality and drama. It ended with Jack Grealish pissed out of his mind, throat hoarse, a league winner. Calvin Harris DJ’d on top of the Liverpool team bus as it drove through the city’s streets. Flares everywhere. People up lampposts. Pitch invasions were contagious. Vibes.
It felt like a warranted celebration of a gruelling season dominated by two of the best sides we’ve ever seen: a pulling down of the curtain, a deserved pre-Mykonos piss up. Most importantly, it was a chance for fans to drill down into the real sport: haranguing ITK accounts for transfer gossip, pretending to know the merits of a holding midfielder who plays in Ligue 2, and demanding that the board of their club resign.
So what have we got instead? More football.
Every two years the English summer brings pubs stuffed with people, many of whom might not even really like the sport, but love the atmosphere. It brings your nan inexplicably getting into betting. It brings a brief period of time where it feels OK to like this country.
Despite identifying as a competition, the Nations League offers none of this. Take the fact that England just got beat 4 – 0 by Hungary in a series of games that has only heightened the anti-Southgate ambience that surrounds our manager like the hum of a broken fridge.
The vibe is no longer good. Southgate is in charge of a knackered team of demotivated players that are now allergic to scoring goals and are being booed off the pitch a year after establishing themselves in the national psyche as heroes. The away leg of the Hungary fixture, played behind closed doors and in front of mostly minors due to the actions of racist Hungary fans, resulted in thousands of children booing the English team taking the knee.
A plan led by Arsene Wenger to host a World Cup every two years was widely ridiculed and I’m inclined to agree that increasing its regularity would shave off some of its stardust, not to mention cause physical risk to players. But if we’re rejecting that, then why are international teams still playing in mid-June after the season has finished?
Friendlies seem to be a better, more carefree option and a more fertile ground for self-expression. The fact that the Nations League is now something that people and players are inexplicably expected to take seriously, means teams have to try and grind out wins. Friendlies, on the other hand, offer the opportunity for flaunting, for artistry, for freedom.
Would Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick at Wembley in 1995 have happened in the Nations League? Would Zlatan’s 30-yard overhead against England in 2012 have happened in the Nations League, a game starring Leon Osman, Steven Caulker and Wilfried Zaha? How Southgate must wish he was trialling Championship wildcards and recalling Jonjo Shelvey in a friendly against Jamaica. Instead, he’s brave-facing it through a competition that fans don’t really care about winning, but care about losing. Any lingering doubts about our manager are brushed aside in the heat of actual competition. During the Euros he’s “Gareth”, our waistcoated wonder, our noble leader, a unanimously fancied man. In the emotional vortex of the Nations League, he’s “Southgate”, a totem of doubt and national insecurity.
That’s why I’m calling on all nations to stand together as one and end this madness. The Nations League sounds like another faceless Marvel franchise, but carries none of the box office. England versus Germany is one of the game’s most storied rivalries, and just a week ago they met in a supposedly competitive fixture, an event that drifted past like a plastic bag in the wind.
The whole thing is sporting ephemera masquerading as something meaningful (ephemera that piles more pressure on players who should by now be lounging in the infinity pools of Dubai). It’s a disingenuousness that chimes with so much contemporary culture: inherent unknowability, something you don’t want or need, another piece of white noise in a product-led era in which everything must be content, everything must be a format and nothing can just happen. Football doesn’t need to be like that.