The Europa League, eh? Thursday nights spent drowning in the ignominy of watching your side play a team whose name sounds more like a character that would turn up after the credits in Guardians Of The Galaxy than one of Europe’s elite football clubs. 300 rounds of group stage matches, endless knockout rounds and then Sevilla just win it anyway. What’s the point, right? Wrong. If you want excitement, unpredictability, emotion and drama then the Europa League is the continental football competition you should be watching.
As the sport of soccer recovers from its brief sojourn to the frying pan of the European Super League, UEFA seems determined to throw it into the fire with the sterile, uninteresting Champions League changes that take effect 2024/25. The European governing body have been emboldened by the love their banner competition got from fans who feared it would be ruined by a cabal of greedy clubs, and have wielded that newfound power to… appease those same clubs. It is a bizarre, but unsurprising, turn of events. But as we stare down the barrel of the closing of the Champions League shop, we must embrace the trendy boutique next door that has always been next door; the Europa League.
Let’s start by politely asking that elephant to leave the room. The Europa League does not crown the greatest team in Europe. It’s unclear what it crowns really. It’s not quite the best of the rest, as the Champions League is stuffed with teams that fall short of the big prize but would win its cousin at a canter. It is not as clear as the old Cup Winners’ Cup either, which in theory crowned the best cup-winning side on the continent. In the Europa League, you often see the champions of one nation face the team that finished sixth in another. There is no specific rhyme or reason to either the conditions of entry or the implications of victory. The Europa League is an end in itself, which perhaps harms its perception in the eyes of some.
Don’t let any of this detract from the fun that the Europa League provides. Take West Ham United for example. Their run to the semi-finals has been a rollercoaster of emotions, perhaps best encapsulated by their dramatic win over perennial Europa winners Sevilla in the round of 16. Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko, in his second game back after taking time away when Russia invaded his homeland , scoring an extra-time winner to send the Hammers to their first European quarter-final since 1981. Now David Moyes’ men are preparing for the semi-final, where they will face another team that has demonstrated why the Europa League is where it is at this season.
Eintracht Frankfurt stopped the resurgent Barcelona machine dead in its tracks, beating Xavi’s men 3-2 in a thrilling second leg after drawing the first 1-1. The Europa League boasts big name sides, but because they have often dropped out of the Champions League to get there, they find themselves at a low ebb and ripe for an upset. Manchester United fell into the same trap last season, doing enough to reach the final but having nothing left in the tank to stop eventual winners Villarreal. Unai Emery’s men are a fine example of the fringe benefits of Europe’s unfairly unloved cup competition.
Villarreal qualified for the Champions League by virtue of that triumph over United, having only finished seventh in La Liga the season before. They have built on that victory, reaching the semi-final of this season’s Champions League. The Europa League’s role in helping a team outside the usual European elite compete on the biggest stage cannot be understated. The fact that such an occurrence is becoming increasingly rare is damning for the Champions League.
This year semi-finalists are the aforementioned Villarreal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Removing the Spaniards for a moment, the rest of the list makes for a sobering read. Madrid have won the competition more than any other club in history. City were in the final last season, while Liverpool won the competition two seasons before. Two of these teams made up the semi finals last season. Long gone are the days when Nottingham Forest, Steaua Bucharest or Porto could conceivably lift the crown. The fact that Chelsea winning last season felt like an outlier says it all. The west London club are currently the eighth richest team in the world according to the 2022 Deloitte Money League.
So I humbly ask that you let the Europa League into your heart. Whether you are looking for a tournament with emotional stories, a more level playing field or where the winner is actually in doubt; Thursday nights have something for you. The Champions League is moving towards an even more rigid, top-down model than ever before. The Europa League, newly slimmed-down to 32 teams to accommodate the Europa Conference League… what that? Europa Conference League? Now that is a pointless European tournament.