'We can't build the future of women's football on friendlies'

Nadine Kessler exclusive: 'We can't build the future of women's football on friendlies' - Getty Images/Eric Alonso
Nadine Kessler exclusive: 'We can't build the future of women's football on friendlies' - Getty Images/Eric Alonso

The future of the women's game cannot be "built on friendlies", says Uefa's head of women's football, Nadine Kessler, as she outlines the reasoning for introducing a women's Nations League.

Speaking exclusively to Telegraph Sport, in her first newspaper interview since announcing the competition last month, the European women's game's most powerful figure insists the Nations League will not create an extra burden on player load, as Uefa seeks to reduce the number of friendlies instead.

"If we really truly care about the development of women's football, we cannot build the future of women’s football on friendly matches any more," the 34-year-old former Germany star said. "National-team football deserves a proper sportingly-interesting competition that at some point can be marketable.

"We wanted to create a competition that provides meaningful, competitive matches and this [the Nations League] hopefully provides the competition we’ve all been longing for. It was really something that the whole of European football wanted, everyone advocated for it."

Many have welcomed the change because of the heavily one-sided scorelines frequently seen in the outgoing format – England, for example, hit double figures in half of their 10 qualifying victories for next summer's World Cup, including a ludicrous 20-0 win over Latvia. However, others, including several Women's Super League coaches, have told Telegraph Sport that they are concerned about the impact on player welfare.

"I don't think it's fair at all to say that this new Nations League will increase the player load because the number of national team matches maybe England will have in a year or Germany or whatever, remains the same," said Kessler.

"We need to clarify that it is not extra games. The true difference is that we're moving a little bit away from more friendly matches to more competitive matches. Do you know how many friendlies there are in men's football? In a normal men's match calendar year, there are none.

"Friendlies work maybe for the top countries, but not for middle-sized or small countries. Why? Because top countries can choose who to play against; they're already financially and emotionally invested.

"In countries that are not there yet, they don't have many friendly partners, meaning they don't play, so we cannot continue the past road where women's football has been driven by these friendly tournaments."

England played 20 internationals in 2022, half of which were technically friendlies. Three of those came in February's Arnold Clark Cup, a mini-tournament that the Lionesses won.

Next February, Sarina Wiegman's side will look to defend the title when they face Belgium, Italy and South Korea. However, for 2024, the new Nations League dates throws England's participation in the Arnold Clark Cup into doubt, with that window only kept completely clear from Nations League fixtures in odd-numbered years.

Pitch International – who agreed a four-year deal with the Football Association to stage the Arnold Clark Cup every February between 2022 and 2025 – did not wish to comment when approached by Telegraph Sport. The FA have also been contacted for a response.

What next for the Women’s Champions League?

The Nations League is not the only major competition change that Uefa have introduced under Kessler. At club level, the revamped Women's Champions League format – including a 16-team group stage – is now in its second season, after smashing attendance records last term as Barcelona played twice at a sold-out Camp Nou.

This season's group stage is now at the halfway point, with Arsenal hosting Italian champions Juventus at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday in Group C, ahead of Chelsea's trip to Real Madrid in Group A on Thursday.

"I’m super pleased, intensity-wise it's really exciting to watch," Kessler said, reflecting on the first 18 months of the new format, while also emphasising it will not change again until at least the end of the agreed four-year cycle at the earliest.

There have been calls for the introduction of a secondary women's European club competition akin to the men's Europa League. Kessler is not ruling out such a competition in the future but adds: "How can we provide more access to more clubs to play in Europe? Is it a separate competition, a Europa League, or is it a greater access to the women's Champions League, a bigger and better Champions League? I don't know yet.

"I think it's always easily said, ‘I want to play in Europe’. It's not so easy to play all of a sudden European matches – you have to have certain standards and professionalism in the clubs. We’ve got to be realistic about this. So we need to look at: Are clubs ready? What clubs? How can we help them to play European competitions?"

Before then, Uefa must decide upon the host for the next Women's Euros in 2025, and four bids were submitted from France, Poland, Switzerland and a joint Scandinavian bid from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Uefa's executive committee will choose the hosts in January.

Kessler, who won the Euros with Germany as a player in 2013 before injury forced her to retire in 2016 aged 28, added: "England was fantastic, but I still think there are things where we can be better, and we want to be better. We're not resting on our laurels, we can aim for higher.

"We have four fantastic bidders. And I can only say they're all very ambitious and very competitive. That's exactly what we need. So I'm really looking forward to the decision very soon."