Europa League Matters: A Calm Rather Than The Storm?
As the results began filtering through from the different corners of Europe as Europa League matches concluded, a feeling that this tournament means something, despite its marginalisation as UEFA’s second class competition, was also transmitted. This should be qualified, however, by mentioning its level of importance appears to differ accordingly, as by the end of the night some rather illustrious clubs with rather weighty histories were bitterly reminded that these games are won or lost on the park and not on the length of a CV. Likely the heaviest thump heard came north of Hadrian’s Wall, where the remaining three Scottish Premier League clubs all exited Europe before group stage competition for the first time in 56 years. While Heart of Midlothian was expected to exit after having allowed five away goals to Tottenham Hotspur at Tynecastle, the Old Firm was generally expected to provide at least one Scottish representative to have its name called for the Europa League proper, but even that ended as quickly as Daniel Majstorovic’s night in Switzerland.
It was not just Scotland’s clubs that would have slightly flushed faces in the end, though, as AS Roma, Sevilla, and Partizan Belgrade all fell at the first hurdle in European play. Granted, Partizan might not immediately spring to mind when thinking of a high profile continental club, but the Serbian side has won its domestic league the past four seasons, and just a couple seasons ago could be seen running riot over Welsh side Rhyl FC in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, setting a personal record for most goals scored in a European tie. Thursday evening, they lost on aggregate to Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League, again etching their names in the football history books but this time as the first side ever to see an Irish club advance over them to the group stage of a European contest. Sevilla, the recent two-time winner of the UEFA Cup boasting quality the likes of Jesús Navas and Álvaro Negredo in their squad, were topped by the team of worker bees that is Mirko Slomka’s Hannover 96, suggesting sometimes substance can indeed trump style in football. As for Roma, the Italian capital witnessed one of Serie A’s more celebrated clubs going out to a Bratislava club which less than a decade ago was playing in the lower divisions of Slovakian football.
To further illustrate the shock of the evening’s results, Stoke City and Birmingham City still find themselves in Europe while Rangers, Celtic, Roma, and Sevilla stay at home.
Aside from congratulating those squads from Hannover, Bratislava, Sion, Maribor, and Dublin for their bits of giant-killing, what else can be gleaned from the fields that were thrashed? Does this truly signal dark days ahead in Glasgow, or eternal embarrassment in the Eternal City? Considering fan responses, those larger clubs that were ousted should be examining everything that caused such calamities, from their youth programs, their player budgets, their fitness regimens, down to the very desires of their players and managers. For many supporters of these bigger sides, it seems playing in Europe–even the Europa League–matters a great deal, and if those who participated considered the competition either an inconvenience or irrelevant to their grander ambitions, the night’s proceedings looked to demonstrate a fundamental disconnect between these clubs and their fans. While several reasons as to why the Old Firm, Roma, and Sevilla are no longer playing in Europe this season will be theorised, pontificated, and rubbished all at the same time, the truth is that they were unable to overcome the opponents before them and have to wait for next season to give it another go.
In that nugget there is something else that can be derived from the results. Club managers such as Ally McCoist or Neil Lennon might have little clue about Scotland’s UEFA coefficient and how that affects the league as a whole. The same could hold with Roma, which likely does not take into consideration Serie A’s coefficient drop in light of Bundesliga’s ascension when tactics are discussed in the dressing room. Sevilla likely fail to game-plan for upholding La Liga’s European reputation and, based on their record of winning the tournament twice rather recently, could not be viewed as treating the event with an indifferent sneer. Simply put, sometimes we fans might be a bit too serious when it comes to the wins and losses of our clubs or those from our favoured league in Europe. Might we jerk the knee or parcel out doom and gloom far too quickly, assigning more importance to these outcomes than necessary? At times, our over-thinking of these kinds of performances could be getting in the way of why we began following football in the first place.
It is a simple game with simple rules that at times makes us simply mad or simply delirious with joy. Perhaps we should try and just keep it as simple as that.