UEFA Nations League: What we’ve learned and what’s next

from Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Alvaro Morata scored late as Spain beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 1-0 on Tuesday to reach the semi-finals of the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League.

On the last Nations League matchday of the calendar year, La Roja became the last team to qualify for the semi-finals – which, along with the championship and third-place matches, will be played next June. Croatia, Italy and the Netherlands are also in the last four.

Next on the international list is the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November and December. With the sport’s most important competition coming up at the end of the year, September’s Nations League matches were particularly informative.

Here are three things we learned.

Both Spain and Portugal are World Cup contenders

La Roja have been trying to return to the top of the international game since their unprecedented six-year run – during which they won two European titles and one World Cup – came to a screeching halt with the group stage at Brazil 2014.

Spain reached the quarter-finals four years later and led world champions France into the 2020-21 Nations League final before going down 2-1. Now they look set to make a real splash on the global stage.

Luis Enrique’s side needed to beat their cross-border foe on Tuesday to progress. With the match in Lisbon, it was no easy task. However, they did it to finish top of their group – experience that should stand them in good stead in Qatar, where Spain were drawn against Costa Rica, Japan and four-time World Cup winners Germany.

Portugal can hold their heads high despite the loss. As devastated as Ronaldo – who saw his stoppage-time strike saved by Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon – and his team-mates looked as the final whistle blew, they produced a pair of 4-0 Nations League victories (over Switzerland, who The World Cup in June and last week against the Czech Republic) how unstoppable they can be at their free-flowing best.

The Portuguese roster is full of players recruited by the biggest clubs in the game. Their talent level is off the charts. They now have a chip on their shoulder heading into the World Cup. Channeled properly, there is no limit to how far this combination can take them in Qatar.

Huge questions about England, France

With a record of 1W-3L-2T since June, Les Bleus have been terrible in the Nations League. France were lucky to narrowly avoid relegation to the second-tier Ligue B for the 2024-25 edition despite losing their group stage final in Denmark on Sunday – their second defeat by the Danes in as many games.

England, meanwhile, were even worse. After a 21-match unbeaten run that included 18 wins, the Three Lions failed to win any of their six group stage matches and were deservedly and unceremoniously eliminated. Despite salvaging a point and some pride in a 3-3 draw with Germany on Monday after trailing by two goals deep into the second half, Gareth Southgate’s side are a mess.

The World Cup is unique, of course. None of the French or English players grew up dreaming of winning the Nations League, which debuted just four years ago. Both teams are talented and strong enough to shake off their poor form and go deep on the brightest stage in a few months.

This would not be surprising. But is it likely? Momentum is a funny thing. It can take on a life of its own. There is a feeling that nothing can go right for England or France at the moment; in fact, as soon as Harry Kane gave the lead in the first against the Germans on Monday at Wembley, the visitors equalised, instantly evaporating any good spirits.

All we really know is that England and France – the two FOXBet favorites after Brazil – are in serious doubt ahead of the World Cup. Whatever the bookies say, the odds don’t seem to be in their favor.

The status of the League of Nations grows

When this race debuted in 2018, it was met with considerable resistance. While UEFA’s idea was to replace non-stakes international friendlies with meaningful, competitive matches, European football’s governing body has struggled to convince the masses, let alone the players.

The 2019 and 2021 editions have indeed produced remarkable star-studded finals. But players exhausted by grueling club seasons made even more condensed than usual by the global COVID-19 pandemic complained about having to play extra games for their countries as early as June.

There was no such grumbling this month. Of course, the September window provided motivation for the European teams traveling to Qatar and first-class preparation for the World Cup. But it was more than that. The League of Nations is slowly but surely becoming an accepted part of the international calendar. Teams want to win it just for the sake of winning. Ronaldo helped his country win the trophy in the inaugural tournament three years ago – with his storied career over, the 37-year-old looked genuinely devastated as Spain ended their dreams of another title on Tuesday.

On the other side of the pitch, La Roja were celebrating (almost) as if they had won the World Cup.

One of North America’s leading soccer journalists, Doug McIntyre has covered the United States Men’s and Women’s National Teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.

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