It is hard to think of an entity, other than SeaWorld or perhaps BP, that has had a bigger kicking served to its reputation than the Uefa Cup, Now the Europa League. At its peak it was seen as an illustrious tournament that any side lucky enough to participate in took seriously. It was a trophy that took pride of place in many of the game’s biggest clubs trophy cabinets. Now, however, it is seen as a distraction, an unwelcome departure from league duties. It is hard to find many people in Britain who view the competition as anything other than the Champions League’s sickly, disfigured, grossly mutated younger sibling.
As somebody who has a real affinity for the competition it is disheartening to see the competition shattered for purely financial purposes. The decision to expand the format and include a group stage, delaying the knockout phase, has been extremely detrimental – perhaps irrevocably so.
In this country at least the devaluing of the competition has not solely been due to the greed of Uefa’s suits; a large proportion of the damage has been delivered by the overpowering need to achieve in the Premier League. The vast riches on offer has meant that anything other than league duties is seen as secondary. This is a dilemma that has also blighted both domestic cups so much so that the question of “has the FA Cup lost its magic?” has become an annual quandary.
Solutions to Europa League’s demise have attempted to been found in the shape of Champions League qualification for the eventual champions, alas this is akin to trying to stem a river’s torrent, poised to break free from a crack in a dam by applying a liberal splattering of plasters. It does nothing but chip another layer of glamour from the competition. The prize for winning a competition should be a trophy, medals and prestige, not merely qualification for another, bigger tournament.
Oddly enough the solution, in my opinion at least, is fairly straight forward; simply revert the competition back into its previous format and abolish the practice of seeding sides. The seeding of clubs allows the bigger sides easier passage and thus ensures a greater level of attention throughout the competition and therefore a greater degree of revenue. This undoubtedly lubricates the pockets of the bureaucrats but it does little to garner mass enthusiasm. An open draw in a competition that immediately kicks off with elimination football would be a welcome, exciting throwback to when the competition was at its zenith. It would also be a welcome departure from the Champions League format that, if truth be told, has begun to grow a little stale, with the same sides habitually setting up a base camp in the semi-final stage.
Not only would a change in format bring about a greater degree of excitement but it would also allow sides that have no wish to participate a rapid exit strategy. Gone would be the days of sides deploying understrength sides in an often rudimentary six game group phase. Two games, one home and one away, could see sides free to return to the all-encompassing Premier League. Perhaps, initially, this would see some of the bigger English sides fold almost immediately but as the tournament is seen as more streamlined and therefore more winnable other nations will compete more seriously. And as the coefficient slips further and further behind the likes of Spain, Germany, Italy and perhaps even Portugal, England would no doubt follow suit and participate.
The highlight of my youth was undoubtedly seeing Celtic making the unexpected trip to the Uefa Cup final in 2003, where the Boys in Green were unfortunate to come up against a Jose Mourinho inspired Porto. Those Thursdays spent in anxious anticipation, where the whole school (reluctant Rangers fans included) were swept up in the feverous atmosphere. The same will have occurred in Middlesborough during their run 2006 run, where, after a scarcely believable run of last-gasp comebacks, lost to a Sevilla side who were just beginning their love affair with the competition – a tryst that has endured today.
While Fulham and Liverpool also make the arduous trip to the final there was not the same level of genuine enthusiasm gripping the clubs, despite a number of outstanding, against-the-odds results against some of Europe’s most storied clubs.
We live in a world where football continues to grow at an exponential rate, a world where interest is at an all-time high. However, similarly to the phenomenon experienced by the superhero movie genre, there is a real danger of oversaturation. The solution to both this and the continued disenfranchisement is simple – exciting, elimination football from the get-go. A tournament trimmed of fat and fraught with danger, the modern day Europa League.