Thursday, May 2, 2013

On the UEFA Europa League

     The 2013 UEFA Europa League final has been confirmed to be Benfica vs. Chelsea, which should be an interesting game between two very good European sides. There's a twist here however: both teams were Champions League washouts, and don't really value the competition the way a team like Newcastle or even Liverpool did. Chelsea's ticket allotment for the final of 9,800 might well be evidence of that. So if the champion for UEFA's second biggest competition doesn't value the trophy they win, then why does it exist? It can't be pity for European football minnows... right?

    UEFA had more competitions in the past that were even more redundant than the current iteration of the Europa League. They had the Intertoto Cup (which I still don't understand), and the Cup Winners Cup, both of which have now been folded into the new behemoth that is the Europa League. Sure it helps smaller teams across Europe access the glory that is European football, but that's devalued some when Champions League losers enter the pool late on anyway, rendering the inclusion of the minnows even more silly. So, the current structure isn't conducive for bigger clubs to pay it much mind, but this competition is not going away. So, what to do about it?

   If the Europa League is to gain a place of prominence for clubs that are participating in it (and not just for Andre Villas-Boas managed sides), UEFA needs to beef up the incentives for it. One of the suggestions is to have either both finalists, or solely the champion qualify for the following year's Champions League, which is certainly a prize worth shooting for. The prize money pool is also far shallower for the Europa League, but UEFA is trying to inject some more cash into the tournament, which is a good step. And while these steps are on the right path to making the Europa League better, there is one step that needs to be taken above all.

    Don't have Champions League washouts enter the competition at any point.

    Those teams clearly don't value the competition the same way that teams who qualified for it do, and if they do, their quality wipes out that of the lower sides that might care even more. FC Basel, who played some good football during the tournament, got whitewashed by Chelsea at the end because they have far more quality, and it's not solely because Basel are a Swiss club (ask Spurs fans). And if the Champions League washouts don't care about the competition, then it's solely a hindrance for the rest of their domestic seasons, and an advantage for the teams they play against that might care. All of that combines to make un-watchable football that no one wants to see.

   The UEFA Europa League has a place in Europe for many teams, especially those that might not have the quality to make the Champions League, but certainly deserve their shot against good clubs in other countries. For those clubs that clearly don't see the value in winning/competing in it, there's no purpose for them to be in it. The Champions League and cash incentives might make those clubs care more, but it would be at the detriment to those clubs that value their participation in the Europa League. Preventing knocked out Champions League sides from entering the Europa League might seem out of the realm of likelihood, but it might make the competition more interesting, and isn't just a tune-up for the domestic season for quashed European giants.

   Give lesser European sides their shot. They're pushed around enough domestically, why can't continental competition be different?

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