The Europa Fatigue
The Europa Fatigue
From next season, the Champions League will have a new little sister, the UEFA Cup will be no more and we will welcome the ‘all shiny and new’ Europa League. The big question has to be: will a clever facelift give renewed impetus to a competition that has been in steep decline in recent years.
Year on year the Champions League becomes bigger and better. Everything screams success; be it the massive multi-corporate sponsorship, the hairs-on-the-neck tingling theme music or the dazzling array of world class talent who grace the turf of the continents’ collection of soccer super stadia. The UEFA Cup’s fortunes have failed to cling to the coat-tails of its big brother.
Moved to Thursday evenings (a traditionally very unpopular night for a kick-about) in an effort to step out of the shadows has done no favours and it has become increasingly treated as a tournament to ‘blood’ youngsters or rest star players, in a similar fashion to the way that the League Cup is treated in England.
This decline has been acknowledged within the media. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa came under great scrutiny for the way in which they dropped out of this season’s competition.
Tottenham, with the threat of a domestic relegation battle, coupled with an upcoming cup final (ironically in the League Cup) to consider, fielded a weakened side in both legs of their tie with Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk. A collection of players usually found warming the White Hart Lane bench, bolstered with several players from the club’s youth squad, took to the field as the North London side limped out of the tournament.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was pretty candid in his thoughts on the current tournament format, "Everyone rests players in the competition. You have so many games to get to the final, it's unbelievable. It's mad that it's still the last 32."
Likewise, Villa saw their own chase for a fourth-placed league finish (which would bring Champions League qualification) as higher on their ‘to do’ list. They also rested key players and suffered a similar fate.
The main gripe from fans and journalists alike appeared to be that every season there seems to be a clamour of clubs all striving to qualify to take part in any form of European football the following season, but then fail to take the competition seriously once they have qualified.
Again using Tottenham’s case in point, having won the previous year’s English League Cup and as a result gained entry into this year’s UEFA Cup. This success had come after a difficult start to their season but had, by the time they lifted the League Cup, risen to a comfortable mid-table position. Following this success, their league form dipped dramatically, suggesting that the season’s objectives were complete and with no greater success was possible. The players appeared to clearly take their foot off the gas, as Spurs failed to win any of their last seven league fixtures. So why, if they were so delighted to be there, were they apparently not that bothered when they arrived?
In both cases, more melodramatic corners of the media called for both sides (should they qualify) to be banned from competing in next season’s inaugural Europa League as they had not shown the required level of respect. Surely a threat that will not and could not ever be recognised, but the acknowledgement of their sins is there to see; especially as Villa failed to win the subsequent league game in which they ‘protected’ their players from.
These two issues illustrate the difficulties that confronted Michel Platini in what is one of the first big decisions he has made in his relatively young tenure as head of UEFA. Whilst the Champions League is widely regarded as being the continent’s premier football trophy, the once coveted UEFA Cup has slid into relative obscurity.
Even by the admission of UEFA general secretary David Thomas, one of Platini’s leading advisors, the competition has suffered: "In some senses the UEFA Cup has suffered a little bit through not having the same prestige."
Looking back only a decade, we had three major European club competitions, the European Cup, the European Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Cup. Only the winners of a domestic league would go into the European Cup, similarly the domestic cup winners would, unsurprisingly, go into the Cup Winners Cup, and the prize for a strong league finish or winning a subsidiary domestic cup would go into the UEFA.
This changed when in 1992 the European Cup became the Champions League and allowed league runners up, and later (dependant on a country’s standing) as many as four sides qualify. The Cup Winners Cup was abolished only 3 seasons later, leaving the two competitions that we have today.
The UEFA Cup’s demise in prestige has undeniably caused by the increase in the size of the Champions League. Without disrespect the clubs to have lifted the famous silver vase since this overhaul, with the exceptions of a Jose Mourinho led FC Porto and Liverpool, have been unlikely to go on to lift the more prized Champions League. Current holders Zenit Saint Petersberg, who overcame Glasgow Rangers in last year’s final, give possibly the greatest testament to this fact, given that they were unable to progress further than the group stage of this season’s Champions League.
Whether the re-branding of the competition will bring a greater emphasis remains to be seen, but a change in name and a re-working of the tournament’s structure seems unlikely to bring greater attention. So what options remain for Platini and his collection of dignitaries to return the trophy to its former glory? Two possible untested possibilities remain.
Firstly, Thursday nights are not traditionally considered as ‘football nights’. Due to domestic fixtures being played over a weekend, UEFA Cup games on a Thursday have forced many leagues to move participating clubs games from their usual Saturdays to Sundays, causing logistical issues that have proved unpopular with clubs and their managers. This has caused a fixture congestion that produced further malcontent from Tottenham manager Redknapp: "It's crazy the way they have piled the fixtures," he said.
Therefore, given that the Champions League fixtures take place every other week, why not play the Europa League fixtures on the Tuesdays and Wednesdays of the alternative weeks. Surely football clubs, their fans and the television companies will then get the best of both worlds?
Secondly, and in my own eyes the more obvious answer, why not give the Europa Cup winners a guaranteed place in the following season’s Champions League? This would mean that UEFA would be clearly grading the competitions in seniority, but surely everyone else has done this already? The one issue this idea carries is the possibility of a team winning the Europa League and having already qualified for next year’s Champions League through their own domestic league finish. However, this would be easily resolved by granting the Europa runners up the much prized Champions League berth. I think that this minor issue pails into the insignificance next to the renewed determination that clubs would display to gain entry into Europe’s premier club tournament.
Whatever further changes are made in the future, the Europa Cup’s maiden season will provide an interesting insight as to whether European football is still able to support two viable European club competitions. This question may prove to be the crowning glory, or biggest disappointment, of Michel Platini’s tenure as head of UEFA.
Article written by David Hardy
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