World champions France face Germany in Nations League opener
BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany start to rebuild their battered reputation on Thursday in the opening match of the inaugural Nations League but their long road to recovery begins with perhaps the toughest of first steps with the visit of World Cup champions France.
The Nations League, brainchild of European soccer body UEFA, aims to boost interest in the autumn and spring internationals, which were seen by clubs and fans as disruptive to the domestic football season.
To be held every two years, it features all 55 of Europe’s national teams divided into four divisions — Leagues A to D — that are themselves split into four groups, to be played between September and November.
There is promotion and relegation between each league while the top division, which includes France and Germany, will finish with a four-team mini-tournament, to be held in June next year, to decide the Nations League champion.
Initially greeted with scepticism because of its seemingly complex format, it was given a warmer reception by coaches when the draw was made in January, with teams receiving financial bonuses as they progress in the competition.
The Germans, world champions in 2014, crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup in Russia in June for their earliest exit in 80 years.
Coach Joachim Loew decided to stay on and has pledged to successfully overhaul the team and turn it back onto the road to success, with the Nations League being their new start.
He has added three new players and dropped midfielders Sami Khedira and Sebastian Rudy among others.
But he could not have picked a harder opponent than France, who are brimming with confidence after lifting their second World Cup after their 1998 success.
Boasting some of the world’s most talented players, including Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, it will be France’s first game since being crowned world champions in Moscow on July 14 after a 4-2 victory over Croatia.
Italy, who did not even make it to the World Cup, will start their own road to recovery with a tie against Poland in Bologna on Friday.
Coach Roberto Mancini called up five new players, including 17-year-old Monaco forward Pietro Pellegri.
World Cup semi-finalists England host Spain a day later while Switzerland take on Iceland in the other League A clash on the first matchday.