BY LAURA BRADBURN
With the recent round of Europa League matches proving to be one of the most exciting for the tournament in its short existence, the competitiveness of the clubs involved could not be in doubt. It didn’t, however, stop that age old pub debate from cropping up once again – what is the point of the tournament and is it nothing more than a meaningless exercise in marketing, overshadowed as it is by its flashier big brother, the Champions League?
There are many aspects to consider in such a debate. There is no doubt that the tournament, first conceived in 1971 under the banner of the UEFA Cup, went on to produce numerous historical moments. The truly elite of the European game triumphed in the tournament, with past winners including such luminaries as Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and Bayern Munich. More than that, it provided a route to glory for the so-called smaller clubs, with teams such as Ipswich Town and Galatasaray gaining solitary victories in 1981 and 2000 respectively.
Despite the rich quality of teams involved throughout its history, the appeal of the UEFA Cup was accepted to be on the decline and was rebranded the Europa League in 2009. Then UEFA President Michele Platini confidently proclaimed that the update would “improve this historic competition”, with UEFA being somewhat more cautious in their predictions. “UEFA’s ambition in making these changes is to rejuvenate the competition in the light of the new European football landscape,” they said, in a not-so-subtle admission of the ever-growing dominance of the Champions League over the market.
It is clear, however, that, only five years into the history of the tournament, those ambitions appear not to have been met. With a purse for the winning team of €5 million, it can’t really be said that financial gain is a real incentive to participate actively in the tournament for clubs harbouring ambitions to join the footballing elite. Enthusiasm for the tournament has been on the wane since its inception, with average attendances for the whole tournament dropping from 9,262 in 2009/10 to 6,898 in 2013/14.
The latest addition to the tournament is automatic entry into the Champions League for the winning team, starting from the end of the 2014/15 season. It is seen by some as an attempt by Europe’s governing body to bring meaning to a tournament which has become somewhat of an inconvenience for the top clubs competing, adding 15 matches to a team’s already packed calendar should they reach the final, not including any pre-qualifying rounds.
This is the latest evolution in the relationship between the Europa and Champions League. An association which began back in the 1999/00 season of the UEFA Cup, it feels in some ways that more and more attempts are being made to ensure that the teams in the Champions League are being favoured. Rather than be an opportunity at European glory for the second tier, the UEFA Cup and, subsequently, the Europa League, are becoming simply an opportunity for the ‘also rans’ of the higher competition to continue their European campaigns for as long as possible.
Such a statement is supported by fact. When considering the last five UEFA Cup finals and the first five Europa League finals, a staggering 7 out of 10 finals have featured at least one team who dropped into the tournament after elimination from the Champions’ League. On two occasions, both finalists have reached the final in this way – Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Werder Bremen in 2009 and the 2012/13 final between Chelsea and Benfica.
A tournament with a once proud history and strong individual identity, the Europa League is being diluted and constricted by the growth of the Champions League. There is no doubt that the quality of the teams entering the Europa League through the Champions League dropout is of the top order, but there is an argument that offering a place in the Champions League to the winner only serves to remove that quality from the tournament the next season. Some may say that these are teams of enough quality that they would be entering the Champions League through the domestic route in any case, but fact does not support this. Of the 10 most recent winners of the Europa League and UEFA Cup, only four have qualified for the next season’s Champions’ League through the domestic route.
So here the true question lies – is the prize of a Champions League place for the winner of the Europa League a galvanising incentive to re-invigorate a failing format, or simply a way for the European elite to syphon even more quality competitors from a tournament that has long since lost its identity? Only time will tell. But the future of the tournament doesn’t look bright when such additions and alterations to the structure of the competition are being made while, it its current format, it is still in its infancy. The fact of the matter is, football is in an age where glory matters less and less, while financial reward wins out. So maybe UEFA have seen an opportunity, swapping the idea of honour and glory at winning a meaningless European tournament for the chance of a golden ticket to join the big boys. It may be hard to swallow, but this latest evolution in Europe’s secondary competition matches the ambitions of modern day clubs. And that, without a doubt, is why such a decision will be applauded by the majority.
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