UEFA Nations League vs Champions League – What’s The Difference?

In football, there are some competitions where teams from different countries will play against each other.

These games take place at both club and international levels.

If you’re from Europe, you may have seen your club side compete in the UEFA Champions League, or your country may participate in the UEFA Nations League. 

However, which one is better and how are these competitions different?

Here’s what you need to know:

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The difference between the UEFA Nations League and Champions League

The UEFA Nations League is competed by European national teams, while the UEFA Champions League is a club competition that involves the best clubs from Europe.

Here’s an in-depth comparison between these 2 competitions

Number of teams involved

The UEFA Champions League includes 32 European club sides in the actual tournament, which are arranged into 8 groups of 4 teams at the group stage. 

This only includes the teams that participate in the tournament proper. Up to 55 teams contest in the qualifying rounds for just six spots.

Some of the top clubs in Europe include:

  • Bayern Munich
  • Liverpool
  • AC Milan
  • Real Madrid

Meanwhile, the UEFA Nations League consists of all 55 European national teams, where they are all member countries of UEFA. Thus, no qualification rounds are necessary for participation.

Some of the top countries in Europe include:

  • Germany
  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • England
  • France 

Frequency of the competition 

The UEFA Champions League is held every year, starting in September till May/June

Meanwhile, the UEFA Nations League is a biennial competition. The last edition  was eventually won by France in 2021, and the next edition will be concluded in 2023.

Duration of the competition

The next UEFA Nations League tournament will begin in June 2022, and will end in June 2023. As such, the matches will spread out across a year

The league phase matches will be contested from June – September 2022, while the finals will be contested in June 2023.

UEFA will select the Nations League finals host from the top four countries. 

The UEFA Champions League, on the other hand, typically takes place across the entire season from September till May

However, the qualification phase starts in June and ends in August. Next season’s Champions League schedule follows as thus:

Preliminary RoundsJune
First Qualifying RoundJuly
Second Qualifying RoundJuly
Third Qualifying Round August
Playoff RoundAugust
Group StageSeptember – December
Round of 16February –  March
Quarter FinalsApril
SemifinalsApril/May
FinalMay/June

UEFA announces the host of the final before the tournament commences. However, the venue may be subject to changes in the European socio-political landscape.

Types of teams 

The UEFA Champions League is contested by the best European clubs. Every season, the best performing teams on the continent battle for the title of European champion. 

Meanwhile, the UEFA Nations League is open to all European national teams.

However, there is a notable gap between clubs and countries. Clubs can choose the players they buy and sell, in ambitions to build a great squad. 

On the other hand, national teams can only make do with players who choose to represent them. Players are obligated to represent their country of origin, or choose among the eligible nations available. 

Although it is possible to switch national teams, the player would have to meet certain criteria before doing so. 

Even then, some countries may have a couple of well-known stars, while the rest of the team may not be of the same standard. 

An example is Andrew Robertson, the talisman of the Scotland national team. 

However, some countries like Germany and France have really strong squads with top-level players throughout. 

Format of competition 

Once the qualification phase is concluded, the proper Champions League season commences with Group Stage matches. 

After the group stage matches, only the top two teams from every group will progress to the round of 16. The other two teams will be eliminated from the competition.

However, the third-place team will directly qualify for the Europa League knockout playoffs, while the fourth-placed team will no longer compete in Europe that season.

Each of the remaining 16 Champions League teams is drawn against each other in a two-legged home and away tie. This is repeated in every round, except for the final, which is decided by a single-legged match at a neutral ground.

If a tie is equal after the second leg, the match will go into extratime, and then a penalty shootout if the score remains unchanged. For the final, the game goes to extra time if there’s a tie in regulation time, then a penalty shootout.

For the UEFA Nations League, all national teams are allocated into leagues based on their UEFA national team coefficients and later adjusted via their Nations League performance rankings:

League A4 groups of 4 teams
League B4 groups of 4 teams
League C4 groups of 4 team
League D2 groups (one with 4 teams, another with 3 teams)

Countries in separate leagues can move upwards or downwards due to their performances in the tournament. The Promotion-Relegation system for the Nations League works as follows:

LeaguePromotionRelegation
League A1st place advance to playoff finals 4th place to League B
League B1st place to League A4th place to League C
League C1st place to League B4th place teams contest Relegation playouts for League D
League D1st place to League CNo relegation

This means that League A will contain the teams that performed the best.

Winners of the previous season’s League B now advance to League A

By this format, a team can gradually progress from League D to league A. Although the journey will be hard, it is very possible.

The UEFA Nations League takes the place of international friendlies which usually happen throughout the football season. As such, it provides a way for countries, especially the ‘weaker ones’, to sharpen their competitive edge.

UEFA Nations League also provides an avenue for automatic Euro qualification.

Number of matches 

Assuming your team makes it to the final of the UEFA Champions League, they will have played 13 matches:

Group Stage6
Round of 162
Quarter Finals2
Semifinals2
Final1

The UEFA Nations League, on the other hand, will see your team play 5 fewer matches if they reach the finals:

League Phase
Semifinal
Final or Third-Place Playoff1

This is because all of the knockout rounds are single-legged.

Your team may also play an extra match after the league phase in the form of relegation playouts. However, this is only applicable to teams that finish bottom of League C. 

UEFA will select the Nations League finals host from the top four countries.

Squad size

UEFA allows Champions League clubs to submit two roster lists known as List A & List B. On List A, a club can register up to 25 players with 8 homegrown players included.

Meanwhile, the List B roster can contain an unlimited number of players. Players registered to this roster must have been born on or after 1 January 2000, and contracted to the club since they turned 15 years old. 

Trent Alexander-Arnold was registered to Liverpool’s List B for the 2020/21 Champions League which he helped them win. 

In addition, clubs are allowed to bolster their squad with new signings before the knockout rounds start. 

New arrivals from the winter transfer window can thus be registered to play with their new team, even if they recently played for another Champions League team.

Alvaro Odriozola signed for Bayern Munich during the 2021 Winter transfers, he played his part in securing a 6th Champions League for the Bavarians.

The UEFA Nations League allows a maximum of 23 players on each team. Managers of the national teams are responsible for selecting players based on any metrics.

Luis Enrique announces the Spain squad for the upcoming Nations League fixtures .

Qualification for the competition

Teams from all over Europe are eligible to qualify for the Champions League based on their seasonal performances. However, only 32 teams can enter the group stage. 

UEFA admits teams to the competition based on the league coefficient rankings. Initially, 26 teams directly qualify for the Champions League Group Stages. These include:

  • UEFA Champions League Titleholder
  • UEFA Europa League Titleholder
  • League Champions of the top 10 leagues
  • Runners-up from the top 6 leagues
  • Third-placed teams from the top 4 leagues
  • Fourth-placed teams from the top 4 leagues

The other 6 group stage spots are up for grabs via the qualification rounds. Many teams from the lower leagues compete for a chance in the proper tournament.

Champions of the bottom 4 European leagues (associations 52-55) begin the qualification phase by competing in the Preliminary rounds. Only one winner will emerge from this round to compete in the First Qualifying round alongside 33 champions (from the 18-51 association leagues).

17 winners emerge from this stage into the Second Qualifying Round. At this point, the qualification phase is split into two paths:

  • Champions Path: involves League champions only
  • League Path: involves Runners-up, and Third/Fourth placed teams 

Three Champions (from associations 15-17) enter the Second Qualifying Round’s Champions path and 6 runners-up (from associations 10-15) also enter through the League path. 

The 13 winners who emerge from this round (10 from the champions path & 3 from the League path) compete in the next stage, the Third Qualifying Round

At this stage, 2 league champions (from associations 13-14) enter the Champions path. Runners-up (from associations 7-9) and Third-placed teams (from associations 5-6) also enter at this stage. 

Finally, the Playoff Rounds are contested by the six winners emerging from the previous round’s champions path and four winners emerging from the league path. Two league champions (from associations 11-12) also join at this stage. 

At the conclusion of this round, there are six eventual winners that progress to the Champions League Groupstage. Four emerge from the Champions path, and two from the League path. 

Teams which are eliminated from the qualification phase get another chance to play in Europe. Depending on the stage they are eliminated from, these teams have a shot at competing in either the Europa League or Conference League, as thus:

Stage eliminatedPathCompetition eligible
Preliminary RoundN/AConference League Champions Path Second Round Qualifying
First Qualifying RoundN/AConference League Champions Path Second Round Qualifying
Second Qualifying RoundChampions PathEuropa League Champions Path Third Qualifying Round 
League PathEuropa League Main Path Third Qualifying Round
Third Qualifying RoundChampions PathEuropa League Playoff Round
League PathEuropa League Group stage
Playoff RoundsChampions PathEuropa League Group stage
League PathEuropa League Group stage

Moldovan Champions (association 33), Sheriff Tiraspol, emerged from the 2021/22 Qualification Phase after starting at the First Qualifying Round

Although they were later eliminated to the Europa League, they had a memorable UCL campaign and managed to beat eventual champions Real Madrid at home. 

Suppose your team competes in a low-ranked league and they performed well in their previous season, the qualification phase provides a path to Champions League football.

On the other hand, all 55 European national teams automatically qualify for the UEFA Nations League. These countries are allocated to the different leagues (A, B, C, and D) based on their rankings and also results of the previous tournament. 

Rewards for winning the competition

Upon winning the most important competition in  European Club football, the victors of the UEFA Champions League will be crowned the best club in Europe

After the final match, players and coaching staff of the champions will be presented with the Champions League trophy and medals. The champions of Europe will also be rewarded with a sum of over 85 million pounds in prize money.

UEFA awards a trophy replica to the winning club after their triumph. However, the original trophy will be permanently awarded to any club that wins the competition three times in a row. Suppose this occurs, another trophy will be forged for the next season.

Real Madrid are the most successful club in Europe with 13 titles. They completed a three-peat win of the competition in 2018, and also won the most recent edition.

Real Madrid were also awarded the first ever original trophy in 1966 after winning the competition six times in total – including five times in a row.

Furthermore, they will automatically qualify for the UEFA Super Cup to face the Europa League winners & the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals where they compete for the title of world champions. They also receive an automatic slot in next season’s UEFA Champions League group stage.

Chelsea won the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup after their triumphs in the previous season’s Champions League & Super Cup

Meanwhile, the winners of the UEFA Nations League will not ‘get much prestige‘ as ultimately, the competition pales in comparison to the other prominent international competitions.

The winner, runner-up and third-placed teams of the Nations League finals will gain automatic qualification to the next edition of the Euros. 

As usual, the players and coaches will also be awarded the trophy in addition to receiving gold medals. Nations League Champions will also receive a sum of 20 million pounds in prize money.

Since its recent commencement, Portugal & France have both won one edition each. 

Verdict

Here is a summary of the comparison between these 2 competitions:

UEFA Nations LeagueUEFA Champions League
Number of teams55 national teams32 clubs
Frequency of CompetitionEvery 2 yearsEvery year
Duration of Competition1 year All season (September – May/June)
Format of CompetitionTwo-legged matches: Groupstages + Knockout Round (Semifinals) Two-legged matches: Groupstages + Knockout Round (Round of 16)
Third Place MatchYesNo 
Number of matches (max. for the winner)813
Squad Size2325
QualificationAll 55 member countries can participate Top European teams (via seasonal performance & qualification playoff rounds)
Rewards for winning competitionSymbolic trophy
20 million pounds prize
Champions of Europe
85 million pounds prize 

Conclusion

Both the UEFA Nations League and the Champions League are prestigious competitions. However, the UEFA Champions League is a club competition while the Nations League is a national team tournament.

The Champions League is seen as the best club competition in football while the Nations League is a recently developed international competition

Many players prefer to win the Champions League, but will also appreciate winning the Nations League for their country!

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