Somebody’s got to say it. The Champions League is, for all the quality of football on show, a bit ‘same old, same old.’ Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, blah, blah… Oh, and Chelsea… usually. The Europa League, for all empty seats on show until its very latest stages, has more of the unpredictability of a genuine cup competition, even if the Iberian Peninsula is beginning to dominate those later stages.
Athletico Bilbao’s run to last year’s final was one of the first hints to an English audience that Premier League teams’ disdain for the competition was not a pan-European attitude. And there was a certain excitement generated by Fulham’s great run to the 2010 final, not least because of the exotic nature of some of the teams downed at Craven Cottage. ‘Fulham 4 Juventus 1’ was the sort of scoreline which only appeared in eight-year-olds’ ‘pretend’ tournaments, and even then only if they were Fulham fans. Yet there it was in the flesh, alongside ‘Fulham 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 2’ on aggregate, in the line-up of scores which dreams are made of (the latter featuring heavily in Chelsea fans’ dreams at the moment). ‘Middlesbrough 4 Basel 1’ and ‘Middlesbrough 4 Steaua Bucharest 2’ in Boro’s run to the 2006 Final would have had a similar status in the north-east, back when the tournament was still the Uefa Cup – Middlesbrough in a European final never seemed likely in Alan Foggan’s day.
But, few exceptions apart, the Europa League has been treated by English clubs as an opportunity to play “fringe” players from the two-team strong EPL squads. And it has been free of the SKY TV hyperbole machine, stuck on Channel 5 and/or ITV 4 in recent years. There are improper and proper reasons for this treatment. The Europa League simply doesn’t fit the SKY TV plan. And anything which doesn’t do that is almost totally ignored by the satellite channel. The sense of unease in SKY commentator Martin Tyler’s voice was palpable when he recently acknowledged the Europa League’s greater importance on mainland Europe. That wasn’t in the script, literally or metaphorically.
The criticism of the competition’s bloated nature is thoroughly deserved, however. In a fond, nostalgic look at the Uefa Cup and its ancestors the European Fairs and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, on this site, I noted that by 2009, it had become a “behemoth,” and that Fulham’s run to the 2010 final had “sprinkled fairy dust on an otherwise simply dusty old competition.” The current Europa League is still that behemoth, an amalgamation of three old tournaments – with Uefa appearing to have forgotten to leave any qualification routes for those tournaments behind.
Bringing national cup winners into the fold, after the unlamented demise of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, was sensible enough. Bringing the Inter-Toto Cup field into the fold is what has led to the 160-team tournament, usually starting during the second week of the Wimbledon lawn tennis championship, barely a month after the previous year’s Champions League has wrapped up. All of which is madness. Oh… and there’s still room for three teams to qualify as “Fair Play winners,” selected from the few remaining clubs in Europe. It is a wonder that there isn’t a tournament for all the other top division sides not to qualify for European football via these routes, as there can’t be that many left.
The EPL teams’ attitude is explicable, too. The Europa League has to be shoe-horned into all already (too) tightly-packed domestic programme. And when the difference between ninth and tenth in last year’s EPL was… THREE… QUARTERS… OF… A… MILLION… POUNDS, the few million euro on offer at the Europa League’s business end hardly seems worth the effort. The idea that teams can lose money on Europa League participation seems a myth propagated by the tournament’s detractors, given that clubs get around sixty grand just for drawing a group game (a not-insignificant source of income for Spurs this season).
But there does appear to be some sort of ‘cause and effect’ behind Spanish clubs’ Europa League successes. The TV money in Spain is (in)famously the almost total preserve of Barcelona and Real Madrid. With mere cents falling from that table, the half-a-million quid Atletico Madrid received, despite not even winning their qualifying group, made their sorties to the Czech Republic and Israel just about worthwhile. And getting to the later stages becomes most definitely worthwhile. Of course, the football is not of the quality produced by the Uefa Cup in its pre-Champions League heyday. When I were a lad, the idea that the Cup Winners’ Cup should be ranked ahead of the Uefa Cup seemed ridiculous. Way back then, the Champions Cup was just that. The only possible non-Champions would be the holders. The “best of the rest” in Europe went into the Uefa Cup, and it showed.
With “the best of the rest” now in the Champions League, it is little wonder that the secondary competition’s standards have slipped a level. The most logical reason I can think of for some of the best of the rest returning from the Champions League to the Europa League at the start of the knock-out stages is to compensate for this severely weakened field. Otherwise, the appearance of teams such as Chelsea in the Europa League’s last 32 does feel like a “reward for failure”, although Chelsea will hardly consider it a reward, I suspect.
This second chance for the third-placed teams in the Champions League groups gives the post-Christmas Europa League the look and feel of the old Uefa Cup, especially as it gives the Europa League the size of the old competition too.
The Uefa Cup always had that extra, third, round before the quarter-finals, which I always thought an improvement on the European Cup. Aggregate victories over two rounds didn’t feel to me like sufficiently hard work to earn a quarter-final place. An easy draw against the Champions of a Mediterranean island and, from about 1977 onwards, a second-round pairing with Celtic and you were almost quarter-finalists by default. And amid the reaction of English fans to Uefa President Michel Platini’s latest open-air musings on European club competition has been considerable support for the Europa League to be a Europa CUP again. If the group stages are an unwieldy way of getting rid of 24 teams, which is what the groups do at present, then get rid of the groups.
It is a simple solution, but not simplistic. The group stage was brought into the European Cup at least partly as a response to the support being garnered by some leading European clubs for a European Super League. The group stages of the old Uefa Cup did not appear to be a lead-in to the idea of a European Super League division two, more a convenient way to standardise the European club football calendar – as much for television executives as Uefa administrators. Perhaps the only argument in favour of groups is the desire to give every club more than just the two games, so as to make European campaigns “worthwhile.” But I have to admit that I was becoming less convinced by that argument with every word that I typed. Certainly if, by giving some teams four games, you end up giving others 17 games, it’s an unwieldy solution. Cup competitions should not be “a marathon, not a sprint.”
Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association introduced a system to their 32-county knock-out championship whereby everyone defeated in the four provincial championships got a second chance through a qualifying competition. The four provincial champions then met the four teams who emerged from these “qualifiers” in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. That system has, sort of, worked, with 32 teams and one-off matches. But with any more than 32 teams in the competition, and home and away ties, that too would become unwieldy to the point of distraction. And even just two teams from each Uefa nation would leave 106 teams competing. A winner might conceivably be playing as many games as under the current system. Indeed, my head is currently hurting at the mere prospect of working out just how many games a potential winner might potentially play. I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I just suggest that the Europa League should become a Europa CUP again with 64 teams.
Make that a starting point and work backwards to determine the minimum number of qualifying round(s) required to allow each Uefa association ‘fair’ representation. And get it done while Platini is mulling over his ‘radical’ plans to ruin… I mean run the European Nations Cup from 2020 onwards. Because the Europa League deserves much better than the scant attention it received in this country before the two Manchester clubs landed in it last season. Chelsea’s entry into this year’s competition will attract similar attention this year. As will Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas’s determination to take seriously the competition that made his name when he steered Porto to victory in 2010 (in a well-documented echo of Jose Mourinho’s arrival on the scene after Porto’s 2003 Uefa Cup triumph).
But the last 32 will also include the holders Atletico Madrid – currently providing Barcelona with a stiffer La Liga challenge than their more illustrious city neighbours. Benfica and Ajax have had their moments of style in Europe this season. Add to them names such as Inter, Napoli, Bordeaux, Basel, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Dynamo Kiev and Lazio, plus the fact of 21 different quarter-finalists in three seasons, and you have a competition worth watching. Even on ITV 4. With Peter Drury. On a Thursday. I, for one, can’t wait. I like the Europa League.