Sometimes it’s any wonder UEFA still bothers with the Europa League.
It is the ugly sister, unwanted sibling of European soccer, sitting alongside the Champions League like an eyesore marring a spot of natural beauty. In fact, an eyesore marring a natural spot of beauty might get an easier ride than soccer’s unloved mutant.
Indeed, the Europa League is maligned like no other competition in the game. Sevilla, lifters of the trophy in each of the last three seasons, might argue that point, but generally speaking, it is the prevailing opinion that European soccer’s second tier tournament is something that could be done without.
For instance, take Mauricio Pochettino’s stance on the competition when Spurs were chasing down a historic Premier League title last season. “The Europa League is not an easy competition, it’s a very tough competition because it affects your domestic league,” he admitted. “It was my opinion when I was at Southampton, when I was asked a lot about this and, having had a Europa League season, I can now confirm that it is very difficult to manage the Europa League with the Premier League and both cups.”
That might be true, with the demands of a European schedule often hitting clubs hard who have domestic duties to carry out, but there is still a unique charm about the Europa League to be appreciated. Yes, there are layers of unnecessary clutter to be sifted through to find it, but it is there.
With the Champions League becoming something of a European super-league, pitting only the best against the best in the exercise of making the rich richer, the Europa League is the last vestige of the old European Cup. There can be a certain monotony to the repetitiveness of the Champions League, and so the Europa League is something of an antidote to that.
Gone are the days when teams would travel for days by plane, train and automobile to play away legs of European ties, but the Europa League preserves the sense of unknown that has been otherwise lost from top-level continental competition. Therein lies the tournament’s intrigue.
Some might deride it as the domain of sporting hipsters keen to detach themselves from the mainstream polish of the Champions League, but the Europa League should be of interest to the inquisitive soccer fan. How much do you really know about Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel’s surprise champions last season who now face Inter Milan in their first group game? Or Ukrainian side Zorya, who will come up against Manchester United?
Maybe it’s because there is such a correlation between the second tier competition and the Champions League that the Europa League fares so poorly. It used to be the case that group stage draws were held on the same day, with most fans turning off once the balls had been drawn from the Champions League pot.
As a consequence, the Europa League suffers through unflattering comparison, which UEFA is all too ready and willing to underline. Now, with the prize of a Champions League place presented to the winners, the Europa League is positioned as a steppingstone to a bigger and better stage. That might make the latter rounds more competitive, but it has done nothing for the overall image and prestige of the competition.
Not even the participation of clubs such as Manchester United and Inter Milan can change that perception. In fact, it is in the success of smaller clubs, such as FC Midtjylland, who made the round of 32 last season or Fulham who ran all the way to the final in 2010, that the true essence of the Europa League can be uncovered. That is who the tournament should be directed towards, not those who would rather be somewhere else.
Just because the Europa League is not to the taste of the continent’s elite doesn’t mean it should be written off completely. Sure, there are aspects of it that are in desperate need of alteration, with some parts in need of being scrapped altogether, but there is still a place for the Europa League at soccer’s top table. It is time it was appreciated what for it is rather than what it could be.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.