Thursday nights just got a little busier! The inaugural Europa Conference League is about to kick off, joining the Champions League and Europa League as the third European club competition.
It’s UEFA’s first truly new club tournament since the introduction of the UEFA Cup (which became the Europa League in 2009) 50 years ago. Here are five reasons why the Conference League – despite its trophy resembling a stylized office bin – should be a worthy addition to the game.
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1. Smaller clubs get their shot at glory
OK, there are some big names in the Conference League – 2019 Champions League runners-up Tottenham and Jose Mourinho’s Roma immediately jump out – but it is Europe’s third-tier competition, and that’s largely reflected by the stature of the sides involved.
Rennes featured in the Champions League for the first time last season, popular Bundesliga upstarts Union Berlin are back in Europe after 20 years away, and perhaps Feyenoord – champions of Europe in 1970 and two-time UEFA Cup winners – could be inspired to recapture former glories.
And even for minnows such as Estonia’s Flora Tallinn and Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar, there’s always the chance of an upset in a one-off game against opponents more accustomed to playing on the European stage. The latter famously beat Celtic in Champions League qualifying five years ago, after all.
2. The Europa League becomes stronger
It’s only logical that by giving some of the ‘lesser’ teams their own competition, the quality of the Europa League improves.
Indeed, of the 14 Conference League qualifiers who competed in the 2020/21 Europa League, ten went out at the group stage – one of whom, Gent, did not pick up a single point.
Some of the groups in this season’s Europa League would not look out of place in the Champions League – evidence, perhaps, that the intentions of the Conference League are geared towards the greater good.
3. More countries represented in European competition
This might not apply so much to clubs from the countries with multiple teams in the Champions League and / or Europa League – but for the likes of Estonia, Gibraltar and Armenia, their entrants can take great pride in flying their nation’s flag on the continental stage .
The aforementioned Flora Tallinn and Lincoln and Red Imps are the first sides from their respective countries to qualify for a proper UEFA club tournament – and they’re joined by Alashkert of Armenia.
In last season’s Champions League and Europa League combined, 30 countries were represented. Across this season’s three competitions, that number has gone up to 36 – a modest increase but one which shows the potential of the Conference League to make European club competitions more inclusive and accessible.
4. It could be a valuable revenue stream for less well-off clubs
Every club in the Conference League gets € 2.94 million (£ 2.5 million) just for qualifying. Now, that’s not exactly going to be a life-changing amount for the likes of Spurs or Roma, but it could make all the difference to some of the less well-off outfits.
Better still, even if you do not make it out of the group stage, each win nets you € 500,000 (£ 426,000) – and even a draw is worth € 166,000 (£ 141,500). Go all the way with a perfect record and the prize money tops € 15 million (£ 12.8 million) – which, in fairness, probably wouldn’t be sniffed at by Spurs or Roma.
5. Afternoon kick-offs
Live football at 3.30pm on a weekday? You bet! At least in the group stage, anyway – with several sides from the colder and more far-flung corners of UEFA competing.
Kairat Almaty will kick off their three home group games at that time – on account of Kazakhstan being so far away it’s not actually in Europe – with HJK Helsinki and Flora Tallinn each doing so once. Not that we’d encourage anyone to roar on the champions of Finland during office hours or anything …
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