The Trans-Europe Express
Sorry if you found the picture there a little bit unpleasant. For those of you that haven’t already guessed, I select the pictures for this blog by typing in the subject of what I’m writing about into Google Image Search and scrolling through it until I find something that amuses me in some way or other. Quality research, I think you’ll agree. Anyway, this picture comes from a Google Image Search for “UEFA Cup”, because that is the subject of tonight’s little diatribe.
There has been, of late, a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding the UEFA Cup. Newcastle United appeared to have left quite a few players at home for their match against Palermo last week – not that it mattered that much, because Palermo fielded an under-strength team themselves. Newcastle’s subsequent win there was regarded as an indictment of European football’s junior cup competition, rather than as a tactical triumph for Glenn Roeder. The critics see it as superfluous. In the era of the all-powerful Champions League, they argue, do we need a secondary European club cup, which attracts low crowds and messes up the following weekend’s fixtures? Who really cares about Newcastle, Spurs, West Ham and Blackburn anyway?
Well, I do. I’d just like to clarify this once and for all: football is not all about the self-perpetuating elite. The UEFA Cup fills a vital hole in European football – regular European football (with its associated revenue stream) for some of the “smaller” clubs in Europe. The critics moan at the lack of “big” names in the UEFA Cup, as if the entry of four clubs from England, Spain and Italy into the Champions League has robbed the UEFA Cup of any interest to anybody apart from obsessives and the mildly deranged. This criticism overlooks one simple fact: the teams that make up the detritus of the Champions League aren’t massive pulls themselves. Who are we talking about here? Anderlecht? Dinamo Kiev? Werder Bremen? Similarly, critics try to hark back to some sort of “golden age” for the UEFA Cup – as if what we see now is some sort of fall from grace. Well, take a look at this list: Eintracht Frankfurt, Ipswich Town, IFK Gothenurg, Anderlecht, Tottenham Hostpur. These clubs were the UEFA Cup winners between 1980 and 1984. “Ah”, I hear you say, “but Real Madrid won it in 1985 and 1986″. Well… yes – but Real were in a real trough at the time, and normal service was resumed in 1987 – the final that year was between those two titans of European football, IFK Gothenburg and Dundee United.
All of this overlooks the fact that the UEFA Cup was always the smallest player of the European club competitions, even when there were three competitions. The European Super Cup was played between the winners of the European Cup and the winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup. The UEFA Cup was the only one without a show-piece final, too – the final was played over two legs. To my eyes, arguing that we should just give up on the UEFA Cup is a bit like saying that we should give up on the Premiership because it’s not as big as the Champions’ League. Having said that, though, there is clearly a problem. For all the toil that Newcastle went through during the summer in the Intertoto Cup, why did they field a weakened team against Palermo? Why did they go to all of that trouble to get into it, if they weren’t going to take it completely seriously? Well, one could argue that we are looking at the differing priorities of the directors and the manager here. I’d be fairly certain that it wasn’t Glenn Roeder’s choice, but Newcastle are unlikely to be troubling the Champions’ League in the forseeable future. As I said on here just the other day, their trophy cabinet hasn’t been troubled since 1969, when they won… the Inter Cities Fairs Cup – the predecessor to the UEFA Cup. If the clubs entering it aren’t seen to be taking it seriously, how can anybody else? Sometimes, I just get the feeling that UEFA simply be trusted to look after it. With this in mind, it’s my job to don my crown and ermine and, as the newly appointed King Of UEFA, start ringing the (imaginary) changes.
1. Move the matches from Thursday nights. If you want to reinforce the idea that the UEFA Cup isn’t a proper competition, keep it on Thursday nights. Thursday night isn’t a real football night. It’s a night for pre-season friendlies, and cramming in matches at the end of the season after a heavy winter. The casual supporters and the (sadly more numerous) supporters of the bigger clubs are worn out by two nights of Champions’ League football. If the UEFA Cup really is that inferior, let the clubs go head-to-head with the Champions’ League in Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Unless it’s in the World Cup, playing a match on Thursday night will always lessen its impact.
2. Back to a straight knock-out competition, please. I’ve given up on the Champions’ League in this respect. They’re like pigs hunting for truffles, are those guys: they’re never going to give up on their meaningless group matches in September. But the UEFA Cup can simply do without them. The increased prevalence of these mini-groups is a curse of the modern age. They’re necessary in the World Cup. Teams go to a great deal of trouble to qualify for the World Cup. Even the worst of them deserve three matches. But in club competitions, it’s merely superfluous. Throw them all in a big pot at the start of the season, and let them thrash it out, sudden-death style. People like cup football. They don’t like watered-down, half-league-half-cup football. No wonder the crowds are generally so low.
3. What’s all this nonsense about letting teams in from the Champions’ League in half-way through? If they’re knocked out of the Champions’ League, they should be out of Europe. End of story. This, to me, is so self-evident that it doesn’t even require any further explanation.
4. There’s a very simple way to make coaches take the UEFA Cup very seriously indeed. Award the two finalists a place in the Champions’ League. Why not just the winners? Well, these are professional footballers we’re talking about here. Being in a cup final should be enough in itself to guarantee that the two teams put in the effort in that one match. Giving both of the finalists a place would increase interest in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. Take two of the places away from the bigger European countries. What, exactly, have, say, Liverpool done to warrant their perpetual place in the Champions’ League? Well, they haven’t won the Premiership – I can say that much for certain. Surely nobody can try to argue, on a moral basis, that the fourth-placed teams from Italy, England and Spain deserve a place in the Champions’ League more than the two finalists of the previous year’s UEFA Cup, can they?
5. Put the people behind G14 in a cannon, and fire them into the sun. It’s the only way they’ll learn, really.