Can the competition ever take on a significance in football?
UEFA’s attempts to revitalise its ‘prestigious’ baby were embarrassing exposed when a prompt sheet was discovered after Tottenham Hotspur’s pre-Panathinaikos press conference. There is a clear indication that Platini and co are desperate to restore the tournaments once great reputation, but is it even possible for the Europa League to be an attractive feature in modern football?
“The profile of the competition is raised in other countries, but not England. I don’t understand it. I respect the competition. I certainly think it is viewed as a punishment in England and I cannot understand why.” (BBC)
These were the words of new Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas, highlighting yet another distinct difference with his predecessor Harry “We are not fighting for the Europa League” Redknapp. The Portuguese prodigy has shown no mercy in his strong team selections so far and will have undoubtedly been grateful for the opportunity to satisfy the disheartened Hugo Lloris.
The familiar chants of ‘Thursday Night, Channel 5’ epitomise the nation’s negative opinion. The Europa League features four more games than its infinitely more popular sister and while the Thursday-Sunday schedule may suit teams in Spain and Italy, it will anger the patrons of the Saturday 3pm kickoff.
The competitions profile in this country hasn’t exactly been helped by Championship side Birmingham City’s inclusion last season and Stoke City’s frankly humiliating ‘waving of the white flag’ upon their visit to Valencia. The heroic underdog fairytales of Leeds, Middlesbrough and more recently Fulham seem a distant memory and while the Manchester duos unexpected addition should have provided a much-needed surge in popularity, it served only as a source of ridicule as both teams made a swift exit.
ITV have snapped up the rights to this season’s television coverage, which should help improve viewing figures, although how anything can be made appealing using the face of Adrian Chiles remains to be seen. Nevertheless the exciting trio of Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle should allow us to compete with the technically superior teams and significantly increase our chance of success.
The aspect I admire most about the Europa League is the fact that it provides a stage for emerging talent to reveal itself. How many of you reading this were aware of Athletic Bilbao’s inspiring home grown philosophy or the prolific exploits of Radamel Falcao prior to last season? If Atletico Madrid had failed to win the trophy then Falcao would not have been gifted the chance to tear Chelsea apart in the Super Cup, which has in turn helped fuel speculation of his imminent arrival to the Premier League.
There is also an air of unpredictability about the Europa League, which makes it an intriguing and worthwhile viewing spectacle. Whereas the Champions League group stages are largely a formality, bar the customary surprise package, the fixtures of Thursday night are incredibly difficult to predict. Has anyone reading this ever won an accumulator on the Europa League because I definitely haven’t?
As appalling as it sounds, the first change that has to be implemented in order for every team to take the competition seriously, is to dramatically increase the prize money.
“Winners of the Champions League take home £7.24m, while the Europa League winners earn a third of that and the difference in TV revenue is also vast” (BBC)
Secondly the format has to change, instead of mirroring the set-up in the Champions League, how about a lottery knockout format that focuses on just one match, with a seeding process in the early stages to keep the most attractive sides in? The competition can also no longer act as a safety net for Champions league dropouts because it serves only to devalue the stature of the other participants.
The Telegraph’s Rory Smith made a great suggestion regarding awarding the winner of the final a guaranteed place in next season’s Champions League. Let’s face it, the eventual winners will probably have had to beat a former team of the Champions League group stages on their route to the final and it also means managers can no longer use the excuse, ‘we’re concentrating on qualification via the league’.
It strikes me as common knowledge that the more you try and hail something as ‘cool’, the more people you end up alienating as a result. The Europa League has been the victim of a number of questionable decisions in the past and has suffered as a result. The competition will always pale in the comparison to the Champions League, so why not make some unique changes and allow it to evolve under a new identity.