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France warm up for World Cup by defending Nations League crown

Real Madrid’s victory in the Champions League final on Saturday did not quite bring the curtain down on the football season in Europe, with the action continuing into June as France begin their defence of the UEFA Nations League title.

The decision to move the World Cup in Qatar to the end of the year could have provided an opportunity for players to have an extended off-season break, but instead international action will go on until the middle of the month with teams playing up to four matches each.

Concerns about burnout are already high up the agenda, with global players’ union FIFPro last week sounding the alarm and saying that professionals should not play more than 55 matches in a season.

Liverpool and Scotland defender Andy Robertson has already played that number before joining up with his country for Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Ukraine.

If Scotland win that, they will face Wales in Cardiff on Sunday for a place in Qatar, but they are still due to play three more Nations League matches after that, two against Armenia and one versus the Republic of Ireland in Group B1.

“It’s a lot after an intense season for everyone,” Robertson said recently.

“You are asking boys to have eight or nine days’ holiday, which I don’t think is fair.”

Fresh from winning the Champions League, Karim Benzema joins up with the France squad as they prepare to play four matches in League A, Group 1.

The World Cup holders entertain Denmark on Friday before a double-header against Croatia either side of a trip to Austria.

Didier Deschamps’ side will be preparing for their defence of the World Cup but they are also defending the Nations League crown they won last October, when they defeated Spain in the final in Milan.

Benzema scored in that game having recently returned to the international fold after an exile of over five years.

The favourite to win this year’s Ballon d’Or, his relationship with Kylian Mbappe in the French attack will be closely monitored.

European champions Italy, Germany and England are all together in Group A3 along with Hungary, and Gareth Southgate’s team will play matches away to Germany in Munich and at home to Italy in Wolverhampton.

The latter match, on June 11, will be behind closed doors as a punishment after the fan unrest that marred last year’s European Championship final at Wembley.

Either side of those matches England play two games against Hungary, the first of which will be in Budapest on Saturday.

South American teams to join?

Other notable Nations League matches will include Spain hosting Portugal in Seville in Group A2, and the meeting between neighbours Belgium and the Netherlands in Group A4. 

This is the third edition of the Nations League, which was won by Portugal in 2019 after being launched to replace meaningless friendlies.

Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and Wales have all declared an interest in hosting the semi-finals and final of the tournament in June next year.

After that there is a possibility that South American teams could join an expanded version of the competition.

“We are discussing it and it’s a possibility but for now we are not very concrete,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told AFP last week.

“The European coaches of national teams are not happy because they do not play South Americans anymore in friendlies, and South Americans even more.

“It might be an interesting competition but we have to see how we place it, that there are not more matches then now.”

The close relationship between UEFA and South American governing body CONMEBOL has already led to the staging of Wednesday’s Finalissima between European champions Italy and Copa America winners Argentina in London.

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