Europa League: the road to nowhere
In football, history has shown that it is always best to get your excuses in first. Roberto Mancini, whose Manchester City team had long since fallen out of the Uefa Champions League, was forced to consider the possible implications of life in the Europa League. It was not where he wanted to be.* Scratch beneath the surface, and it is possible to detect that the Europa League is not where anybody wants to be.
"If in the New Year we could win the Europa League, it could be an important trophy for the club and we need to win something this season and every season," Mancini said before City's match against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night. "But if we go in the Europa League we will play different teams. When you play Champions League, you play on a Tuesday or Wednesday, then Saturday or Sunday in the Premier League. But with the Europa League, this is just impossible. If you don't get any help from the Football Association [with scheduling] then this is the problem with the Europa League. But we want to play in it. We want to stay in Europe - however, if we do, we will play two different teams, one on Thursday and another one on Sunday."
We feel your pain, Roberto.
What started life in 1958 as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, became the European Fairs Cup in 1968, then the Uefa Cup in 1972, has descended into the farce we call the Uefa Europa League. The Europa League is so misconceived that not only do many clubs fail to field their strongest line-ups, but Uefa, the game’s European governing body, does not know what to do with the competition. The Europa League can be a chore rather than a privilege; the ultimate argument against increased European competition.
Now there is talk of merging the Europa League with the Uefa Champions League, which itself has been suffering from elephantitis and from the sense that the word “champions” is something of a misnomer. (Even the “league” bit is only half-right). Alas, bigger is not always better.
Uefa has created the problems itself. Expanding the European Cup in 1992 might have made good business sense but it diminished, almost overnight, the value of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and, later, the value of the Uefa Cup. There is only room for so much European football, but Uefa put television money ahead of novelty and excess ahead of relevance.
We have gone back to the future. Whereas the European Fairs Cup and the Uefa Cup provided some epic matches and stories (especially during the Seventies and Eighties), the Europa League is becoming as extraneous now as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was in the early Sixties.
Problems are everywhere with the Europa League: not enough money (losing in the group stages of the Champions League is far more lucrative than winning the Europa League); Thursday night matches (which can play havoc with a club’s domestic fixtures); too many matches (the Europa League is a blood bath that requires more effort than the Champions League).
And what do clubs get at the end of it? A bit of glory, a stunning trophy (which Liverpool broke when they won the competition under the guise of the Uefa Cup in 1976), and possibly another season in the Europa League. At least with the Champions League, if you win the trophy, you can call yourself the champions of Europe. By contrast, the Europa League has become the Football League Cup of the continental game: unloved, not a lot more than a chance to blood in reserve-team players, and ridden with identity crisis.
Quite where Uefa goes with the Europa League has become a talking point this week, as the group stages reach a conclusion. Michel Platini, the Uefa president, will have noted empty seats at stadiums all over Europe . . . even at Anfield, where acquiring a match ticket is usually difficult. Last season, Manchester United also struggled to sell their tickets for Europa League matches at Old Trafford.
When Atletico Madrid won the Europa league last season, their prize money amounted to £8.5million. Manchester United, although going out at the group stages of the Champions League, picked up £28. For winning the Champions League, Chelsea secured a prize of £49million. The Europa League offers little money and, for most clubs, little glory. There is now little point to the competition.
Uefa is considering ditching the Europa League entirely, in favour of extending the Champions League knockout stage from 32 to 64 teams. “We are discussing it,” Platini told France Football recently. “We will make a decision in 2014. We have decided nothing yet. There is an on-going debate to determine what form the European competitions will have between 2015 and 2018.”
The possibility remains that an expanded Champions League would include, say, the team that finishes seventh in the Premier League and the team that finishes fifth in the Scottish Premier League. I checked the date of Platini’s interview with France Football. It was not April 1. (Platini came across better when he did his thinking with his feet).
For now, European football finds itself at a crossroads. There seems little doubt that, eventually, Uefa – or a breakaway organisation made up of elite clubs – will create a fully-fledged European League. Between now and then, however, the game’s European governing body should find ways of making bringing back the excitement of uniqueness of yore.
Here are some ideas to improve European football:
1): End the group stages in both the Champions League and the Europa League and make both straight knockout competitions.
2): Give the winners of the Europa League direct entry into the Champions League for the following season.
3): Rename both competitions, to avoid the sense of identity crisis. Revert to the European Cup and the Uefa Cup. “Champions League” is the worst possible title for the greatest club competition in the world, while “Europa League” means nothing.
4): Fine clubs for fielding weakened teams.
5): Make European qualification harder rather than easier, preferably by making the Champions League smaller. Standards will improve and so will excitement. As Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the president of Bayern Munich, said, “We are no friends of the idea to have quantity instead of quality.’’
6): Bring back the European Cup Winners' Cup. I went to the last final, in 1999, and miss everything about the competition.
7): Get rid of the European Super Cup. What is the point of it? Need I ask?
When the present seems so dull, it is easy to bask in nostalgia. I must confess a conflict of interest. The first match I remember attending was the Liverpool-Stromsgodset match in the European Cup Winners' Cup, Anfield, September 1974. Final result: Liverpool 11, Stromsgodset 0. There was a mystery about a team from Europe, especially when I went to the second-round match, against Ferencvaros, the Hungarian team that bored the collective pants off the Kop. What we lost in excitement we gained in intrigue . . . especially when Ferencvaros won on the away-goals rule. Even on television, European nights were special.
Yes, I am living in a fantasy world; trying to recapture something that was never designed to last. But if the Europa League is the answer, I would love to know what is the question.
* Manchester City lost to Borussia Dortmund and did not even make the Europa League. Lucky Mancini. No Thursday nights on Channel Five.