Portugal eyeing more glory at UEFA Nations League 2024/2025: new format and implications for the Seleção

While most Portugal fans are looking forward to this summer’s European Championship in Germany, another competition where the Seleção have experienced glory recently gets off the ground later this year.

Portugal won the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and the Seleção will be eyeing more success in an expanded tournament with a new format. 

Furthermore, it could prove a pivotal competition for the careers of several Portuguese footballers who are on the periphery of the squad right now. The omission of the likes of Pedro Gonçalves, Francisco Conceição and Jota Silva from Euro 2024 qualifying, and probably from the final squad Roberto Martínez selects to go to Germany, has generated plenty of debate among the fans and pundits.

The UEFA Nations League could be the ideal stage to blood such players and others knocking on the door of the Seleção, especially if things do not go well at the Euro.

New format

54 of UEFA’s 55 football nations have entered the competition, with Russia excluded in the wake of their suspension from UEFA and FIFA competitions due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war.

The national teams have been divided in four sections (leagues A, B, C and D), which are further subdivided into 4-team or 3-team leagues. The countries have been allocated into their respective leagues in line with their seeding from previous tournaments, and then a draw held in February this year.

Portugal are in Group A1 alongside Croatia, Poland and Scotland as their opponents. As in previous editions, all four nations in the group will play each other home and away.

In a change to previous editions, there will be an additional quarter-final stage before the Final Four mini tournament. The group winners and runners-up of the League A sections will play these quarter-finals in March 2025, with the victors qualifying for the Nations League Finals, where semi-finals, a third-place play-off and the final will define 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams of the 2024/25 Nations League.

World Cup qualification incentive

Each of the teams in Leagues A, B and C have an additional huge incentive to win their section, as it will earn the nation direct qualification to the 2026 FIFA World Cup, regardless of the regular World Cup qualifying competition. A further four teams can qualify for the World Cup via the Nations League through the play-off system.

In addition to the silverware of the Nations League competition itself, and the possible ticket to the 2026 World Cup, the rest of the tournament will include relegation and promotion between the leagues as in previous years, meaning virtually every match will have something riding on it.

Despite initial scepticism, the groundswell of opinion among football fans and most journalists has been positive in relation to the tournament, given that it ensures national teams play against opponents of a similar level and eradicates meaningless friendlies. Moreover, it has led to some tremendous action over the years.

Historical overview of Portugal’s participation in the Nations League

The tournament has a special place in the hearts of Portuguese football fans after Fernando Santos led the Seleção, still riding the wave of the Euro 2016 triumph, to victory in the inaugural tournament.

Portugal won a three-team group that contained Italy and Poland with two victories and two draws to qualify for the Finals which were staged in the north of Portugal, in the cities of Porto and Guimarães.

In the semi-finals a brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick saw off Switzerland 3-1 at the Estádio do Dragão, and at the same venue Portugal beat Netherlands 1-0 thanks to a Gonçalo Guedes goal to spark huge celebrations that went well into the night in the Cidade Invicta.

France exact revenge for Euro 2016 

In the 2020/21 tournament Portugal were edged out of making the Finals by reigning World Champions France. Although losing just one of their six games in a group containing France, Croatia and Sweden, the 1-0 defeat at the Estádio da Luz against the French proved decisive.

France would go on to win the tournament, coming from behind to beat Spain 2-1 in the final played at the San Siro in Milan.

Spain edge Iberian showdown 

In the 2022/23 Nations League, Portugal looked well set to make the finals again as they topped a group containing Spain, Switzerland and Czech Republic going into the last match, when the Seleção hosted their Iberian neighbours needing just to avoid defeat in Braga to win the section.

But a late goal from Morata saw the Spanish snatch first place and dash Portugal’s hopes of making the Final Four. Spain would go on to win the whole tournament, beating Croatia in the final played in Rotterdam in a penalty shootout after a goalless draw. 

Therefore, looking back at the Portugal’s history in the tournament, one has to conclude that it is a competition where the Seleção have always put in commendable performances. Portugal won the inaugural Nations League, and were narrowly beaten in the next two by the eventual winners.

Portugal fans will eagerly await the next instalment, beginning in September this year.

By Tom Kundert