With a furiously contested Kylian Mbappe goal, the 2020-21 Uefa Nations League drew to a breathless and controversial conclusion on Sunday night in Milan.
What wasn’t in question, however, was that, after two cycles, the tournament has proved to be an overwhelming success.
Not too many people saw that coming, given the distinctly tepid reception the Nations League received when it was first announced in 2014.
Just three months on from a delayed Euro 2020, and crowbarred into the October international break, this Nations League finals could have been a tough sell.
Luckily, the quality of the entertainment took care of that. We got two brilliant semi-finals, in which Spain ended recently-crowned European champions Italy’s 37-game unbeaten run and then France coming from two goals down to beat Belgium in stoppage time.
France rehashed the same script in the final, fighting back to overcome Spain through Karim Benzema’s top-corner rocket and Mbappe’s offside-and-yet-somehow-not winning goal.
The Nations League, Uefa’s punt on replacing lifeless international friendlies with a new competition, has shown there is no substitute for meaningful games.
While the finals have delivered high-quality matches, the biggest gain has been the group stage, where countries face other teams of a similar level instead of dreary mismatches.
The top nations get more regular practice of the standard of opponent they’ll face in major tournament knockout games, while the medium and smaller nations get more fixtures that they can feasibly win, encouraging them to develop more attacking play.
All the while the competition treads a thin line: meaningful enough to be worth winning and a massive upgrade on friendlies, yet not a disaster to lose.
Among the many wrinkles in Fifa’s proposal to make World Cups biennial is that it would probably kill off the Nations League in its infancy.
The thinking goes that if World Cups were to be increased in frequency to every even-numbered year, then the major confederational tournaments – the European Championship, Copa America, Africa Cup of Nations and so on – would take place in odd-numbered years.
Once you factor in the necessary qualifying process, which would be condensed in dedicated international windows once or twice a year, there would be no room for the Nations League.
Those in favour of Fifa’s plans can argue that more major tournaments will create the additional high-stakes international football that the Nations League provides.
“Organise only competitions of meaning and kick all the parallel components out of the game,” said Arsene Wenger, Fifa’s fall guy for the unpopular plans. “People must understand what is at stake and only have games with meaning.”
Certainly, World Cup and Euro finals – or at least the knockout stages – could do that. But you would still have to go through wholly predictable and achingly dull qualifying campaigns every year to deliver that. And even then the group stages rarely provide fireworks.
The Nations League, against most expectations, has found the sweet spot that Wenger speaks of and looks better placed to deliver it than more World Cups.
It would be an irony if football’s blue-sky thinkers shot down one of Uefa’s better ideas in the name of progress.