The Europa League: straggling in the Champions League’s shadows?
As the Europa League competition struggles with the likes of the glorified Champions League, as James Pennington reports, it still has a place in European football.
“Thursday Nights, Channel 5!”
That was the mocking chant directed at travelling Manchester United fans in football grounds across England following their shocking exit from the UEFA Champions League.
Manchester United is now in the Europa League, which is covered by the Channel 5 network. In the eyes of their many rivals Channel 5, a commercial station with poor ratings and low budgets, was a deeply amusing location for the Red Devils, a side used to glittering prime time television slots and headline match ups.
Appearing in what is frequently perceived as an “also-ran” competition and a poor relation to the more glamorous Champions League felt incongruous, and the schadenfreude towards the Manchester giants was palpable.
So where did this disdainful perception of the Europa League come from? Why is it only covered on the late-night slots of an obsolete television station – and are those perceptions justified?
The Europa League, as it exists today, is the latest reincarnation of a European club competition. It was established in 1955 as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, in which clubs from cities holding European Trade Fairs would compete alongside the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, the forerunner of the aforementioned Champions League.
By the 1971-72 season, entry rules were relaxed to include domestic cup winners and league runners-up from across Europe, and the competition took on a new name; the UEFA Cup. In recognition of the fact that UEFA, European football’s governing body, now administered the tournament rather than trade fairs.
It ran as a knockout competition through until the 2009-10 season, when a reworking of the format introduced a group stage, and its name changed to the current Europa League.
A glance at the honour roll of Europa League winners since 1971-72 season shows some of the greatest names in European club football: Real Madrid, Internazionale, Juventus and Liverpool have all lifted the trophy on multiple occasions, while Bayern Munich and Ajax have also triumphed.
It boasts an impressive diversity of winning teams as well; in all there have been 26 different winners since 1972.
And yet it still lags quite clearly behind the Champions League for prestige and admiration. Some of the reasons are obvious: while domestic runners-up would go to the Europa League, the league champions would go on compete at the highest level.
The Champions League has seen some of European football’s most dramatic and celebrated matches – in recent history alone one can point to the Liverpool’s come-from-behind triumph against AC Milan in 2005, and last season’s master class from Barcelona in dismantling Manchester United in the deciding match.
These matches stir the emotions of millions, and the Europa League by definition cannot reach such heights no matter how exciting its matches, with the continent’s best clubs always chasing the Champions League.
Other problems hound the Europa League. UEFA has attracted a great deal of criticism in recent years for the tournament’s format: the new group stage prolongs the competition, often seemingly indefinitely, sapping individual matches of importance where previously, in its knockout format, tension abounded in every round.
Adding to this clunky feel is the fact that teams being eliminated from the Champions League in third place (such as Manchester United in this year’s competition) are parachuted into the knockout stage of the Europa League.
It gives the tournament an unfair and unbalanced feel, adding to the challenge faced by teams who have already slogged their way through the group stage.
Numerous recent winners and finalists have entered the competition via Champions League failure. These formatting issues have helped create an image of an ill thought out spectacle, tucked away on Thursday evenings (Champions League matches being played on the higher-rating Tuesday and Wednesday nights throughout the season).
Despite these problems, the tournament does have its merits, and a fine-tuning of its format could rework it as a popular tournament in the eyes of neutrals.
For smaller clubs, the Europa League provides a European adventure that would be quite impossible in the big-money Champions League. This season has seen Stoke City, a middling team from the Premier League, make it through to the knockout stages, while Birmingham City, a team from English football’s second tier, competed after winning last year’s League Cup.
Club football in Europe has reached a stage where only the most affluent clubs can compete for honours: Spain’s La Liga is a perennial two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid; the English Premier League is threatening to follow suit with the battle between the two Manchester Clubs (United and City), and the Serie A in Italy has been traditionally shared between Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale.
This domestic dominance has to a large extent continued into the Champions League, perpetuated by the huge prize money and bonuses handed out as a result of big broadcasting and advertising deals.
By contrast, the Europa League provides an important avenue of glory for clubs unable to compete with the European football giants. One cannot imagine fans of Porto, Atletico Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk, the three most recent winners, complaining about an international competition being added to their trophy rooms.
At the time of writing, the Europa League Round of 16 looms with the most intriguing tie being Manchester City’s trip to Lisbon to play Sporting, while Valencia host PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United head to Spain to face Athletic Bilbao.
The prospect of a Manchester derby at the final in Bucharest on May 9 would certainly be a Europa League decider to remember. If UEFA gave proper attention to the organisational problems currently facing the tournament rather than pouring resources into an already affluent Champions League, there is no reason why it cannot stand on its own two feet as a popular, legitimate European club competition.
Now, what to make of the Manchester United fans, taunted across England after their Champions League humiliation? As their team cruised to a 2-0 win over Ajax in Amsterdam in their Europa League Round of 32 fixture, the away supporters sang happily as they enjoyed a Thursday evening trip on the continent:
“Thursday nights, Channel 5!”