UEFA Nations League vs World Cup – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on October 7th, 2022

The UEFA Nations League and World Cup are 2 of the most popular international football competitions for national teams.

Both competitions have varying levels of importance, and help to uphold international football. You may be wondering, how are they different from each other?

Here’s what you need to know:

The difference between the UEFA Nations League and World Cup

The World Cup involves the top 32 national teams from around the world. As the most prestigious competition in football, it determines the world champions

In fact, the FIFA World Cup set the precedent for world championships of other sports, including:

  • Basketball – FIBA World Cup
  • Rugby – Rugby World Cup
  • Hockey – Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup
  • Cricket – Cricket World Cup

Although the World Cup is meant for men’s football, FIFA also organises world championships for other levels in football. These include:

  • U20 national teams – FIFA U20 World Cup
  • U17 national teams – FIFA U17 World Cup
  • Club football – FIFA Club World Cup
  • Futsal – FIFA Futsal World Cup
  • Beach Soccer – FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup
  • Women’s Football – FIFA Women’s World Cup 

Meanwhile, the UEFA Nations League involves all 55 national teams of the UEFA member nations. It is a recently developed competition for the national teams of Europe.

Commenced in 2018, the Nations League is aiming to develop football in the ‘weaker’ countries that are found in the UEFA region and provide another competitive platform for national teams.

Other federations have followed UEFA’s footsteps and established a Nations League competition of their own. These include: 

Here is a further comparison between these 2 competitions:

Number of teams involved

32 nations from all seven continents are involved in the World Cup. All of these 32 teams must compete for their spot through the worldwide regional qualification phase. 

From the 2026 World Cup edition, the competition will play host to 48 teams.

Every slot at the World Cup is based on merit via the qualification phase. However, the hosts qualify automatically.

Meanwhile, the UEFA Nations League involves 55 European national teams, who 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 and duration of competition

The World Cup is held once every 4 years, while the UEFA Nations League is held every 2 years. Since its inauguration in 1930, the World Cup has been hosted in several countries across the globe. 

All of the competition’s matches are played within a month.

Usually, the World Cup takes place during the summer from June to July. However, the timing has been changed for the 2022 competition to the winter (November – December) due to the host’s unfavourable weather conditions

FIFA entertains hosting bids from countries or a group of countries. The bidding process is an elaborate phase that starts years before the actual World Cup.

Several nations have been selected via this process, the latest is the approved joint bid of USA, Canada & Mexico for the 2026 World Cup.

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.

Format of competition

For the World Cup, the 32 teams are divided into 8 groups, each containing 4 teams. At this stage, the teams contest 3 matches to qualify for the next round.

Every game at the World Cup is a single-legged contest.

The Group winners and runners-up will advance to the knockout rounds. Knockout rounds start with the round of 16 until the final match. 

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:

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.

The winners of the previous season’s League C now advance to League B

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.

Presence of Third Place Match

In the UEFA Nations League, the two teams that were knocked out in the semi-finals will contest for the third place and ultimately a spot in the next Euros.

Italy beat Belgium in 2021 to clinch a third-place finish in the Nations League finals.

The World Cup also has a third-placed match whose winner is awarded with a bronze medal for their laudable efforts on the biggest stage.

Belgium beat England to clinch the 2018 World cup bronze medal. They lost to France, the eventual winners, in the semifinals and England lost to Croatia, the runners-up.

Number of matches played

Germany won the 2014 World Cup and contested 7 matches along their glorious run.

If your country reaches the World Cup final, a number of 3 matches are played in group stages and the other 4 are in the knockout stage (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final).

However, the next World Cup edition in 2026 will see teams play more matches since there will be 48 teams contesting the tournament.

Portugal won the 2019 UEFA Nations League after winning their two matches in the finals and contesting another 6 matches in the group stages – a total of 8 matches.

In the Nations League, 6 matches are played in the group stages and the other 2 are the semi-final and the final.

Squad size

Both the World Cup and the Nations League have the same rules for the squad size of each team. The maximum number of players in a team for both competitions is 23.   

Qualification for Competition

All 55 UEFA member countries automatically qualify for the 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.

Meanwhile, the World Cup participants are determined via World Cup qualifiers, which helps select 32 national teams from the worldwide total of 55

The World Cup qualifiers are organised by the respective continental confederation. FIFA awards a fixed number of spots to each confederation, and countries compete for these spots via the qualification 

ContinentFederationWorld Cup spots
AfricaCAF5 spots
AsiaAFC4 spots + direct playoff 
EuropeUEFA13 spots
North America, Central America & the CaribbeanCONCACAF3 spots + direct playoff spot
OceaniaOFCDirect playoff spot
South AmericaCONMEBOL4 spots + direct playoff spot

Each confederation organises its individual World Cup qualification process as they deem fit. The confederations make their format to fit their member nations.

For example, European World Cup Qualifiers involve all 55 european national teams drawn into ten groups. UEFA makes careful considerations in the group seeding process, including:

  • Political tensions
  • Winter venues
  • Excessive travel

Although the teams are divided into pots based on their FIFA rankings, Nations League rankings also weigh in on the qualification process. 

Each Nations League Finalist is placed in separate groups which contain 5 teams. Thus, there will be no match-up between these countries and the qualification route will be relatively easier. 

The first 5 groups contain 5 teams, while the second 5 groups contain 6 teams. Each group contends to clinch a direct World Cup spot, while the runners-up qualify for the Playoff rounds. 

Playoff spots are also awarded to the best two Nations League group winners that finish outside the top two.

12 teams compete for the remaining 3 world cup spots via the playoff rounds. Three paths exist which consist of a two-legged semifinal and a single-legged final. 

Each of the playoff paths involves four teams in contention for a single spot. The higher ranked nation hosts the semifinal, while the host of the final is determined by a draw.

Wales thumped Ukraine in a close victory to clinch a World Cup spot for the first time in 64 years! The Dragons also defeated Austria in the playoff semifinals on their miraculous journey. 

However, the South American Qualifiers follows a far simpler format. Due to the small number of nations present, CONMEBOL organises all 10 teams into a double round-robin format.

The competition features each country playing against the other 9 to clinch one of 4 direct spots. Moreover, the fifth-placed South American team will compete in the inter-confederation playoffs.

Uruguay beat Peru to clinch a third-place finish in the CONMEBOL qualifying standings. This win guaranteed their place at the upcoming world cup; Ecuador also directly benefited by securing their spot after a fourth-place finish above Peru.

World Cup qualifying rounds are very intense and yield several upsets as top nations, regardless of their Nations League or FIFA rankings, may not make it to the World Cup.

Italy, the newly-crowned champions of Europe following the Euro 2020, failed to qualify for the World Cup for the second consecutive time.

They lost the World Cup qualification playoff semifinal to North Macedonia, who later lost to Portugal.

Rewards for winning competition

The World Cup winners are instantly recognized as the Champion of World Football and will be awarded a prize of around 42 million dollars

Once the final match is over, the World Champions will be immediately crowned and presented with the exquisite world cup trophy to celebrate their victory. The present FIFA World Cup trophy has been in use since the 1974 edition

Like many other competitions, players and staff of the World Cup-winning national team are awarded gold medals for their victory. 

Silver and Bronze medals are also awarded to the runners-up and third-place teams respectively. In addition, the country’s name and year of triumph are engraved on the base plate of the trophy.

The record for the most World Cup triumphs is currently held by Brazil, with 5 titles. In fact, they were permanently awarded the first World Cup trophy after winning it an astounding three times.

Meanwhile, the winners of the UEFA Nations League will not have near as much ‘prestige‘ as ultimately, the competition pales in comparison to the World Cup.

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

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

The Finalists and third-placed teams of the Nations League will gain automatic qualification to the next edition of the Euros.


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

World Cup UEFA Nations League
Number of Countries3255
Frequency of CompetitionEvery 4 yearsEvery 2 years
Duration of Competition1 month1 year
Format of CompetitionSingle-legged matches: Groupstages + Knockout Round (Round of 16)Double-legged Home & Away Groupstage matches + Single-legged Knockout Round (Semifinals)
Third Place MatchNo Yes
Number of matches (max. for the winner)78
Squad Size2323
QualificationContinental World
Cup Qualifiers
All 55 member countries can participate 
Rewards for winning competitionWorld Champions
42 million dollars prize 
Symbolic trophy
20 million pounds prize


Both the UEFA Nations League and the World Cup are competitions where several national teams participate

While the World Cup winner gets the prestigious title of the best team in the world, the Nations League helps to provide a more competitive nature to European teams

Many players dream of winning the World Cup but winning the UEFA Nations League is also a great achievement for many.

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