How has the Nations League worked for Malta so far?

The concept of the Nations League divided opinion when it was first launched in 2018. Mostly, the negative feedback came from fans and pundits in first-tier nations who wondered why another international football tournament was needed. Others looked at the list of rules and regulations governing who played whom and when, as well as the concept of relegation and promotion, and wondered who would have the energy to figure it all out.

But the concept did find favour among Maltese fans, and others who supported what have been traditionally bottom-tier nations, as it offered scope for improvement lower down.

The theory goes that if smaller nations play off against one another competitively – and therefore break up the treadmill of repeated losses against bigger teams – it would make these games mean something, and would enable teams such as Malta to strengthen their competitive edge. As the tournament celebrates its five-year anniversary and bettors look to for odds on the upcoming playoffs, how has Malta’s experience in the Nations League benefitted the national team? Has it benefited them?

Some positive signs, some less so

The beginning of the current decade featured Malta’s strongest-ever single year showing in international football, with seven games unbeaten and a run of three consecutive wins. During that time, a number of Nations League games were played, and the run included a 1-0 win in Latvia. All of these details were unprecedented for a Maltese national team, and the performance in Nations League games was almost unblemished. A defeat at the hands of the Faroe Islands just three days before the unbeaten run began prevented Malta from winning promotion to League C – but the run itself was highly promising.

World Cup Qualifiers: Same old same old

If the fillip in confidence from winning Nations League matches is supposed to filter through into games against the higher-ups, it’s yet to show signs of doing that for Malta. World Cup qualifying was, again, a harrowing experience, with bright spots coming against Cyprus at home (3-0) and away (2-2). Of the last four matches, three were heavy defeats at home (4-0 to Slovenia, 7-1 to Croatia, and 6-0 to Slovakia). Any confidence gained from starting to show form in the Nations League was dented heavily by that sequence – and by watching Gibraltar gain promotion to League C.

Nations League 2022 – a mixed bag?

Gibraltar’s promotion to League C saw Estonia make the journey in the opposite direction, and a pair of games against the Baltic nation represented a chance for Malta to win competitively against a comparatively big nation. In the event, Malta lost both games, but the margins were narrow and the winners late. There were wins, and clean sheets, in the head-to-head with San Marino, but right now the signs are that any improvement gained by playing in the Nations League is relatively temporary and pretty minor. However, any improvement will be welcome if it can be secured, and if Malta manage to avoid the tougher group next time there could yet be some cause for celebration.