Why the Europa League needs reforming
There comes a time when you can celebrate the merits of something for being a slightly-inferior, yet fresh alternative to the status quo or norm. The English Championship lacks the quality of it’s elevated Premier League equivalent, yet is as exciting and unpredictable as competitive football comes. The windows laptop from which this article is being typed on right now is inferior to the latest Macbook Pro, but offers better excel, spreadsheet and gaming platforms within. JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a longer-winded and arguably less exciting literacy-text than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, yet their motion pictures are unequivocally differing in quality.
Three really quite intangible footballing examples, but the point remains. Differing versions of the best of something can always add quality and variety to a genre or industry. The Europa League, a neo-mega sub-standard continental slog tournament, borne from the ashes of the UEFA Cup (and before that the Cup Winners Cup), was designed in its conception to fulfil that very premise: an alternative that offered qualities its superior equivalent didn’t. Abstractly, the tournament should be an opportunity for Europe’s peripheral nations to flaunt their talent, a sub-plot for competitive under-teams to have a fairytail with increased exposures, a cherished root in itself to the golden gates of the Champions League proper.
Its current format, that of being like an over-stuffed Christmas bird surrounded by a horde of starved and dreary pensioners at a desolate retirement home, seeks to include everybody and anybody in a drawn out and arduous process of competition. 102 teams qualify for entry in a range of varying formats via a number of streams (such as the ‘Fair Play’ award) and are subjected to two-legged July games, usually a week or two into a team’s respective pre-season schedule. UEFA streamlines the competition down to 48 teams after a potential six game qualifying process, and replicates the Champions League in group format up until December. 24 teams come through that with a bitesize load of eight third placed Champions League teams, and the competition takes on an additional knockout round. Fulham went in the hard way in their 2009/10 campaign and ultimately competed in a 63 game marathon that year.
Fulham are the epitome of the Europa League success story. Absurd underdog comebacks (a 4-1 thrashing of Juventus comes to mind), perennial challengers, peripheral entrants: they’re what your ‘Odd’s (Norweigen), Vojvodina’s (Serbian) or Shamrock Rovers’ (Irish) drool over, a reflection that there have been times when smaller teams have gone far. There is some truth in the motion that there is some hope for weaker-underdog stories; as of 2013, for example, there had been ten different winners of the tournament, 23 finalists, and 43 semi-finalists. The Champions League in it’s maligned comparison, has featured 20 different semi finalists in that time.
But this is a rare Europa-anomaly. What else is better about it? Are there better players? Do European superstars feature there like a Falcao, or a Forlan? If you want supreme quality these days, the best players of yester-year who frolicked in the Europa League courtyard have migrated north to the Champions League as the inequality financial range between the two tournaments expands. Sure, many top quality players will maybe play there during their early years, but they’ll be in Europe’s elite as soon as their pungent scent lingers for more than a year or two.
In reality, the Europa League fails to be that fresh-bedded alternative to the Champions League. It is loathed by many, seen as an obstacle to those who find themselves in it through under-achieving- a Thursday night slog, too near a weekend for the domestic-conscious. For the peripheral teams, how often is there genuinely a Fulham, a weak team who have an FA-Cup esque run? Seldom. The rehabilitation ‘sympathy’ exit package for third-placed Champions League team’s at knockout stages usually proves a final blow, despite their complete lack of palpable sentiment to the tournament when they enter so late.
As for the heavyweights who should really see it as a startling opportunity for continental exposure, there’s a gloom of apathy that as obvious as it is repetitive. ‘Thursday night, Channel 5‘ was sang at Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side as they looked sure to exit the top four one year, a reflection that the Europa League can only attract an audience on what is considered Britain’s least popular terrestrial TV channel. The lateness of fixtures in the week seems to cause a ‘continetal hangover’ that frequently erodes at a team’s domestic form. Liverpool’s astounding 2013/2014 season title challenge could perhaps be accredited to not having a Europa burden; they played once a week and could prepare for their league games thoroughly. Tottenham, conversely, have been shattered perpetually over the years, with an overly-rotated squad weighed down by fatigued mid-week clashes hundreds of miles away. Inter fans this year have even pondered whether they will flourish in a Scudetto run, being the only one of their rivals not playing in Europe. Of course, the pendulum can spin both ways. In just the last five years, Hull City, Birmingham City and Portsmouth all had highly conducive domestic downfalls following debut Europa League qualifications.
The potential is perhaps then there, but reform is necessary. As ever, money talks and the financial compensations for playing in the Europa League are dwarfed so gigantically by the Champions League that you can see why heavyweights feel no motive to field their strongest teams midweek. In 2011, £632m was shared between 32 clubs in the Champions League, while a meager by comparison £132m was paid to the 48 Europa teams. That figure has actually narrowed in light of BT’s new deal, but the discrepancy between both is still grossly unappealing. Within that, UEFA should consider placing games on Wednesday evenings. While there is no actual rationale behind the differences in a Wednesday-Saturday schedule or a Thursday-Sunday one, the results continue to correlate that playing that near an impending weekend takes its toll. Perhaps the longer journeys to the likes of Israel contribute to that further. Either way, why couldn’t the Champions League be an all out Tuesday affair and the Europa League be an all out Wednesday affair, which then rotates gameweek by gameweek?
Regardless, UEFA’s current commitment to the tournament is failing. The big teams seemingly don’t care, the smaller ones cannot make headway. There are options on the table, and reform is imperative if genuine progress is to be made.