What Is Wrong With The Europa League?

 

Just as every amateur dramatist dreams of playing Romeo or Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, every top flight football team dreams of playing in the Champions League. Nobody wants to portray Mercutio and Tybalt or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just as no club would appear to want to play in the Europa League. Like the above-mentioned characters, the competition is viewed as something for those not good enough to play the leading lights.

As any Shakespeare fan would tell you, Mercutio is a central component of the story, without him, the whole chain of events leading to the play’s climactic finale would not likely have happened. A true scholar of The Bard’s work knows and appreciates this, just a good student of the modern game, such as Andre Villas-Boas, recognises the worth of the Europa League to their team.

At a time where the Champions League’s perceived “poorer relative” is in the spotlight, not for its quality of football, but for UEFA’s idea of promoting the competition via prompt scripts given out at pre-game press conferences, Villas-Boas was ahead of the game. Prior to Spurs’ match with Panathinaikos, he voiced his confusion as to why the Europa League was viewed as a punishment in England, in contrast to the raised profile it receives in other countries – without using any the scripted phrases such as “prestigious” or “heritage”.

Reminiscing of the old UEFA Cup, one cannot help but automatically draw upon such adjectives.  The need for Michel Platini’s marketing men to remind us that the Europa League has “provided some of European football’s most memorable moments and characters in recent years” may be required to remind some, perhaps younger, football fans exactly what the competiton used to stand for. For supporters of clubs such as Ipswich Town, who lifted the UEFA Cup trophy in 1981, it will be forever etched proudly in their history; similarly with Tottenham following their double triumph in 1972 and 1984, while winning the tournament in 2003 with Porto launched the career of Jose Mourinho.

Perhaps the current format leaves a lot to be desired: using it as a dumping ground for sides exiting the Champions League at the group stage does little to shake off the “poor relative” tag. Seeing the same country provide three of the four semi finalists, as Spain did in 2012, makes purists yearn for the old knockout format where most countries only had one or two participants and had seen 18 different winners from 6 different nations prior to its merger with the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999.

The Europa League itself may be a concept in its relative infancy, with constant tweaks to its format not helping to establish it as a genuine competition, but it is in danger of being perennially regarded as a separate, inferior competition to the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. Those two were indeed prestigious and rich in heritage. While the all-conquering cash cow of the Champions League remains so far ahead in terms of prestige and financial worth for English clubs, it is up to more managers in England take their lead from Andre Villas-Boas and cease using the competition as a breeding ground for experimentation. Until they do, the Europa League will never be recalled with anywhere near the same fondness as its now defunct predecessors.

Ricky Goddard