Tonight we see two clubs clash for the second biggest trophy in Europe, the Europa League. For Ajax, it means a youthful club emulating the squad that won the Champions League just 22 years ago and an ex-player against his old club. For Manchester United, it is Mourinho’s chance of crowning his debut season with United with European Silverware. it is also an exciting opportunity to see five teams in the Champions League next season. That however, is all the Europa League is anymore, another passage into the Primary Cup.
The only thing that really excites me about the Europa League are the qualifiers and the group stage, after that the competition becomes a joke to me, a great way of devaluing every club that begins in the competition. I know this season the two clubs began this season’s campaign in the Europa League but that is a rarity. The final 32 is a flawed concept, it is now just a second chance for Champions League sides to succeed in Europe. Clubs like Dundalk and Southampton fight tooth and nail to get into this competition, even more so for clubs like West Ham who failed to make it past the last qualifying round.
So lets say Dundalk get through, which they didn’t, and make it to the last 32, they then have to encounter a side such as Tottenham or Lyon. Clubs such as those two amongst others have huge budgets, firstly as a reward for finishing in their Champions League spots in their respective domestic leagues, secondly for playing televised Champions League football in prime midweek slots at 7.45. After all that money they have accumulated, after they have failed to sign players good enough to compete against Europe’s top sides, after they have put in six sub-par performances, UEFA rewards them with a spot in the knockout rounds of the Europa League.
Sides like Dundalk have spent their considerably smaller budget well, well enough to get past countless superior opponents, and are then, if they make it through the group stage, are rewarded with a match up against a side who wasn’t intelligent or hungry enough to prevail in the Champions League. They get rewarded with less money, divided between more teams, playing on two slots on a Thursday, the earlier slot being before most people have finished work. All their hard work is undermined by UEFA’s repeated attempts to showcase what they perceive to be Europe’s top players.
What makes the FA Cup such an effective format has been highlighted this year by Lincoln City and Sutton United. As a football fan more people want to see an upset, a fairytale story like Leicester’s, rather than constantly having the top 6 shoved down their throats and coast through half heartedly. The Europa League for me is about exactly that, a chance to showcase Europe’s second tier up and coming clubs, and give them a more realistic route into the top showcase of football. So why are we still trying to close those sides out of this elitist circle which is being strengthened year by year.
Tottenham did not need a second chance, a chance which they also wasted. They came second in the Premier Division, qualifying through that avenue, so why not give one of the sides in the Europa League a fair chance to make history. It undermines all those clubs efforts, clubs who dream of even reaching the Europa League final stages. The competition should be about that Champions League prize, not an insurance policy for the upper echelons of European clubs.
The other thing it undermines is winning domestic competitions like the FA Cup. The money it brings into the club is worthwhile but why bother when they know, if by some chance they make it through qualifying and then the group stage, they have an extra round to go through with clubs with huge budgets. It seems to me like a glitch in a video game half way through, you do well then hit a wall you cannot walk past, so why buy into the game at all, more so why play it or buy it? The only way to resolve that is to remove the glitch.
The round of 32, and the insertion of 3rd place Champions League Sides must be removed if UEFA is to restore the prestige of the old UEFA Cup. It needs it’s own identity and arguably a reintroduction of the Intertoto Cup if UEFA actually want to show the range and depth of talent throughout Europe. Imagine extra chances for English sides to venture into Europe, extra money, experience, a chance to progress. Mr Ceferin, make a huge statement, one which will further European Football and redistribute the money that dominates it, the reform of UEFA’s competitions.