As if the Tartan Army haven’t endured enough agony over the course of ten failed attempts to reach a major tournament finals, Uefa have now put together a revised format which offers the excruciating possibility of Scotland actually making a mess of it twice in their bid to end the cycle of despair by reaching Euro 2020.
That, of course, is the fatalistic outlook on the new Uefa Nations League which will come into being next year.
But as difficult as it is to be more upbeat in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s 2-2 draw in Slovenia which ended Scottish hopes of making it to the 2018 World Cup finals, the Nations League should, in theory, provide the best opportunity yet to return to the big stage. In effect, the new competition offers teams like Scotland the chance to secure an indemnity on a place at the Euro 2020 finals before the formal qualification campaign even starts.
It is a complicated and convoluted tournament but, in effect, the Nations League will deliver four of the 24 teams who will take part in the 60th anniversary European Championship finals which will be staged across 13 cities – including Glasgow, where Hampden will host four matches – in the summer of 2020.
The draw for the inaugural Nations League will take place in Lausanne on 24 January next year. Uefa’s 55 members will be divided into four leagues (A, B, C and D) which will be based on the national team coefficients from the last three major tournaments (the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and the 2016 European Championship).
The final coefficient ranking table will be published by Uefa tomorrow, following the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, but Scotland are all but certain to find themselves in League C. Provisionally, they will be joined in the third tier by Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Norway, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia and Lithuania.
League C will be split into one group of three and three groups of four with the matches to be played between September and November 2018. There will be promotion and relegation between the four leagues which will decide the composition of the draw pots for subsequent European qualifying campaigns.
But perhaps more significantly, every individual group winner from each league will be eligible to take part in the play-offs for the last places at the Euro 2020 finals. For example, if Scotland won their Nations League group and then failed to progress from their Euro 2020 qualifying group (which will now be played over seven months from March to November 2019), then they would get a second chance in the play-offs which will take place in March 2020.
Even if Scotland failed to win their Nations League group, they might still claim a place in the play-offs if the team who top their group go on to qualify automatically through the standard Euro 2020 campaign.
So, while the Uefa Nations League may not appear to be the most appetising addition to the football calendar, it might just be the salvation Scotland need as they reset their efforts to reach a first major tournament finals since 1998.
The Nations League, which will be marketed centrally by Uefa for television and commercial purposes, will also minimise the number of international friendly matches. Those who sat through the miserable spectacle of Scotland’s 1-1 draw against Canada at Easter Road in March will surely welcome that development.
Uefa competitions director Giorgio Marchetti believes the Nations League has the potential to establish itself as a popular and highly competitive tournament.
“All of our associations agree that it is better to play these matches in a competitive framework than friendlies that are sometimes difficult to organise and are less interesting to people,” said Marchetti.
“It is a different competition where teams will be facing opposition of the same size and similar strength, so the matches are supposed to be balanced and competitive. All in all, my expectation is that the Nations League will be well received by the associations and even more by their fans.”
Marchetti is also confident supporters will soon become accustomed to the format of the tournament which he denies is too unwieldy.
“Can we really say the National League is too complicated to communicate?,” added Marchetti, pictured below.
“In my opinion, no – because we are applying to national teams a system that is very popular because it is played by all the clubs in every country.
“You have leagues – first, second division – promotion and relegation, playing home and away, round-robin, so we are not inventing anything. There are some complexities but I would also like to be clear. The Euro qualifiers remain the same. The Nations League is a new competition.”