The Europa League is to the Champions League what honesty and sincerity is to the Serie A. It’s supposed to be, and used to be, important; but instead it’s insignificant and irrelevant. Europe’s secondary competition has fallen so far from grace that UEFA needed to send a memo to all managers asking them to “highlight the importance of participating”.
That really should not be the case. Although both have undergone a few name changes, the Europa League has been around for as long as the Champions League, since 1955. The competition is part of European football’s history and culture, and winning it should be a source of great pride.
One argument often levied to explain why it’s so inferior to the Champions League is that the teams aren’t good enough to make it interesting. For me, this argument does not hold up. Man City, Juventus, Inter Milan, Roma, Ajax, Lyon, Marseille and Valencia have all played in the Europa League in the last four years, and all are (now) Champions League stalwarts. Similarly, it is hard to argue that Nordsjaelland, APOEL, Otelul, Plzen, Zilina, Debrecen and Unirea are any better or worse than Academica, Molde, Videoton, Neftchi Baku and Maribor, all of whom are in this year’s Europa League.
In fact, consider for a moment how well winning the Europa League has worked out for every victor in recent years. The last four winners – Porto, Athletico Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg – have all become European powerhouses since taking home the trophy. Additionally, the players and managers that excelled in the competition have received huge career boosts: look at Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and many of their players (Falcao, Deco, Carvalho and Hulk spring to mind).
The aforementioned winners have also become regulars in the Champions League, which is no coincidence. The co-efficient scoring that a team receives for winning the Europa League stands them in good stead for future European campaigns. This, in turn, results in better draws in the group stages, ensuring an easier route to the knockout stages (hypothetically). For instance, Athletico Madrid scored higher than Chelsea last year, 34.171 to 33.050, as did Shakhtar to Barcelona in 2009, 29.325 and 28.662 respectively. Man City could do with considering this…
Baring that in mind, why have several English clubs previously chosen to send out shadow teams in the Europa League? Why do they prioritise finishing 4thand use the competition to nurture youngsters rather than field their first team?
Typically, the answer is money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as bored of people blaming money for every footballing issue as much as the next person. But when you look at the facts you can’t help it. The winners of the Europa League receive €3 million. To put this into perspective: merely reaching the group stages of the Champions League brings in €3.9 million.
I’m sure UEFA have their reasons for such a ratio. I’m sure they can support it with advertising and sponsorship deals and what have you. But with those statistics, the Europa League is doomed to failure. Consider this: team A finishes 5th, win the Europa League and finish 5th again. They get about £28 million. Team B finishes 4th, qualify for the group stages in the Champions League but lose all their games, focus entirely on the Premier League and finish 3rd. They get £32 million. You can improve yourself more if you fail than if you succeed.
Furthermore, the Europa League will never leave the shadow of the Champions League while two facts remain: the way Champions League rejects are catapulted to the knockout stages, and the name.
By implementing 3rdplace Champions League teams into the last 32 of the Europa League, UEFA tell every participant of the Europa League that excelling in said competition is as commendable as flopping in the Champions League. They completely demean and belittle their own competition. It’s a slap in the face to every team that worked hard to achieve qualification.
To make matter’s worse; it’s widely considered a slap in the face to the rejected team too! For many teams – see Man Utd last year – instigation into the Europa League is deemed a burden and a punishment. If they don’t want, then don’t give it to them. Why should they be given a second chance at glory, money and improved co-efficient when they failed the first time around?
Then we get to the name. Until the Capital One Cup reared its uninspiring head this year, the Europa League was top dog in the demotivational names league. Why change it at all? Whoever complained about the UEFA Cup? It was a pathetic attempt to make the entire competition more similar to the Champions League. As well as copy the format of the Champions League in its entirety, they tried to reproduce the esteemed power that the words ‘Champions League’ produce. But they failed. All they did was take a moon of Jupiter and add League to it. It may as well be called the League of Ganymede.
Within its name, and the way it copies the Champions League format so strictly, lies the main problem. The Europa League IS simply a second-rate Champions League. Instead of being a competition in itself, it’s a pale imitation of its more successful brother. There are enough quality teams in this year’s Europa League for it to be rated highly. The teams aren’t the issue, it’s the fact that they are currently competing for what is essentially the Champions League B.
I would like to see a new format for the second tier competition. I think with some major changes it can become as significant on the footballing landscape as it once was. A return to knockout fixtures throughout would keep the excitement levels high throughout, no Champions League rejects to belittle the initial participants (more teams in the earlier stages would solve any fixture issues), a different name and, most importantly, more money for successful teams. To be honest, the last point – reducing the financial gap between the two competitions in terms of prize money – would solve many problems all on its own. It will never happen. The Champions League has, rightly, become the jewel in UEFA’s crown and they would sooner scrap the Europa League altogether than risk degrading it. But this is a shame. Changing the system would give so many teams throughout Europe a chance to improve themselves, and restore pride back into a flagging competition.