European football appears to be at constant odds with itself. The Champions League is a competition of glory and heroics, often producing the most intense fixtures and beautiful football meanwhile the European competition’s ugly sister, the Europa League, constantly fails to grab the attention of fans.
Andre Villas-Boas told reporters at the beginning of the season that he was shocked by the English attitude towards Europe’s second competition, but then again, the Europa League tends to just get in the way. It comes with financial reward, but often proves detrimental to a club’s domestic season. Fulham played 19 extra games in the 2009/2010 season when they reached the Europa Cup final, and ended up finishing 12th in the Premier League – five places and seven points lower than the previous year when they achieved qualification.
Playing on a Thursday night against a team that came third or won a cup in one of Europe’s smaller nations is hardly beneficial to the likes of Tottenham, Everton or Liverpool, and the majority of managers opt to play youngsters and reserves instead of risking injury for their star players who will be needed at the weekend. So is it really any surprise if fans sitting on their sofa decide to watch Eastenders or Corronation Street instead of the Liverpool second team – now featuring the useless Stewart Downing at Left Back – taking on the third best club in Switzerland?
UEFA are fully aware of the problem, and have recently announced they are considering merging the beautiful damsel that is the Champions League with the brutish, slightly hairy ugly sibling that is the Europa League. Will combining these two ladies like some sort of bizarre Nazi experiment actually benefit the teams involved? Or will it just create a huge biological mess with seven arms but no hands?
From a domestic perspective, the top-half teams and cup winners that constantly miss out on Champions League football would surely benefit. The extra games are more worthwhile for a start. Facing Barcelona or Real Madrid with the chance to wow the fans with an upset is a much more exciting prospect than watching a Premier League team comfortably beat a side that would struggle in the Championship if they played in England, and furthermore would surely come with much higher gate receipts.
The long-term result would hopefully make the Premier League more competitive, and would not only give lesser teams having a good season (such as West Ham or West Brom this year) a chance of playing in Europe’s top competition, providing financial benefits for the following seasons, but also equate the balance between the top four and top seven.
The Premier League’s natural hierarchy provides stability, but it could do with a shake-up. The old top four of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea was only broken into following the rise of Manchester City as their Sheikh owners flooded the club with their exotic fortunes, bar a few cameo appearances from Tottenham and Everton.
Then again, diluting the most elite tournament in club football by doubling the number of teams involved from 32 to 64 comes with its own set of drawbacks. There are already complaints about the likes of BATE Borisov and Nordsjaelland simply making up the numbers in the group stages, and the qualifying rounds are littered with teams that most English football fans are unlikely to have heard of. Adding an extra 32 teams that have less quality than the current 32 teams would simply make this problem worse, as countries only allocated a single Champions League spot will be given two or three, filling up the qualifying stages with worse teams.
But it would also ensure that by the group stages, only the highest quality teams in Europe would still remain, making room for the likes of Tottenham who unfairly missed out on Champions League football last season, and are clearly better than many of the lesser teams that make it to the latter stages of thecompetition. Furthermore, until the smaller clubs experience the financial benefits and quality required to be a competitive force at European level, they remain unlikely to ever progress on their own, unless the Premier League’s billionaire owners relocate to Europe’s smaller countries.
The merger is an interesting proposal, but it has not been set in stone, and is not the only idea on the table. For a long time, it has been suggested that the winners of the Europa League should be given an automatic qualifying spot into next year’s Champions League, which I believe would be a good thing. The hypothetical team would have enough quality to see off at least 14 European opponents, and would have the momentum of success from the year previous. Michel Platini, on announcing the new proposals, also rejected the idea that a European Super League, working outside of the bureaucratic politico of UEFA could come into existence. Of Course Platini would talk down such claims, but a Super League would be an interesting idea.
Either way, something has got to give. The Europa league is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of tournament. No doubt any club in Europe would happily lift the trophy, but managers will always be unwilling to risk their domestic season to win a second tier competition. Even more so, I believe that especially in England, teams like Tottenham and Everton deserve their chance to play for more than one season in the Champions League, and certainly the involvement of such teams would not diminish the tournament’s quality.
Hopefully, the domestic league would also reap the benefits as the balance of power in the Premier League table shifts more evenly, leaving us with a top seven filled with teams capable of winning the league instead of the two horse race that tends to dominate the English game.