Liverpool are in it. Everton want to be in it. Yet too many English clubs these days would rather simply avoid it. Ian Doyle examines the Europa League
IT WASN’T quite the football equivalent of a group of Chinese and South Korean Olympic badminton players taking turns to deliberately serve into the net, but it was getting there.
Back in March 2008, Bolton Wanderers travelled to Sporting Lisbon for a place in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals with the tie precariously balanced at 1-1.
The Trotters, having eliminated Atletico Madrid in the previous round, had never reached this stage of a European competition before, and supporters headed for Lisbon in great hope.
Small wonder, then, their outrage when manager Gary Megson effectively run up the white flag, sending out a team of reserves as Bolton, unsurprisingly, slumped out.
Megson, though, was pleased to have been eliminated. The reason? There was an important Premier League game coming up a few days later.
Such is the manner in which Europe’s secondary competition has fallen behind its bigger and exponentially more lucrative brother the Champions League, the 2009 rebranding that turned the UEFA Cup into the Europa League making little impact.
Indeed, tales of English clubs throwing in the towel have become legendary. Martin O’Neill began the slippery slope towards the Villa Park exit when in 2009 he sacrificed UEFA Cup glory for a top-four finish by sending a second-string to CSKA Moscow – Villa finished sixth – and Harry Redknapp simply fielded a complete reserve team having lost the away leg to Shakhtar Donetsk.
That wouldn’t happen in the Champions League.
So why in the Europa League?
Money, inevitably, is the answer, with UEFA their own worst enemies. In attempting to see off a European Super League by bloating the Champions League, they have succeeded in belittling their other competitions and threatening the currency of domestic leagues – even as late as the mid-1990s, finishing fourth in the English top-flight would not have been something to savour.
From a business viewpoint, concentrating on the Europa League is not economically viable.
The estimated gross commercial revenue from the Champions League this season is more than £1billion, compared to £175m for the Europa League, with the latter only profitable if a team reaches the latter stages.
For example, Tottenham received £25.1m for reaching the Champions League last eight two seasons ago; doing the same in the Europa League would have brought in just £5m. By contrast, Stoke City received more for finishing 14th in the Premier League last season.
While these figures don’t include the ‘market pool’ which is distributed according to the proportional value of each television market represented by the clubs taking part, their inclusion would only widen the financial gap between the two UEFA competitions.
Such disparity remains a bone of contention, as highlighted earlier this month by the European Professional Football Leagues, the organisation that represents domestic authorities in Continental competition.
“The gap in the size of payments received by Champions League clubs and the clubs in the Europa League, in our view, is too great,” said Emmanuel Macedo de Medeiros, chief executive of the EPFL.
“Our campaign is an integral part of the policy of financial transparency, responsibility and solidarity, that the EPFL pursues."
It wasn’t always like this.
When the UEFA Cup was first introduced in 1971, replacing the old Inter-City Fairs Cup, it gained a reputation of being more difficult to win than the European Cup, which at that point involved only by domestic champions.
The UEFA Cup had up to three clubs from the same country, most of which were up-and-coming and challenging for domestic titles, and contained more rounds.
But ever since the European Cup became the Champions League and began inviting the top two, the top three and, in some cases, the top four of domestic leagues, so the secondary competition has been diluted, further so once the European Cup Winners’ Cup was abolished in 1999.
Where qualifying for Europe’s secondary competition was once a pointer to a brighter future, now it is for many clubs an inconvenience and a sign of failure – not least when eight Champions League teams drop into it after the group stages.
Thankfully, it’s not always about money. David Moyes’s Everton have been one of the few Premier League clubs in recent years to have taken the Europa League seriously, memorably reaching the last 16 in 2008 before falling to Fiorentina.
And for Moyes, the prestige and pulling power of having a team in Europe far outweighs the issues of a heavier workload.
“We've always said Everton is a club that has been there many times and it would be great for us all to get back there,” says the Goodison manager.
“We’ve now been out of Europe for the last two or three years. A club like Everton need European football.
“It would be a dream to get back into the Champions League – it would be like back to winning the league again – but if it was Europa League we’d take it.
“It can be tough, but I'd love it to be us when we are talking about playing Thursday and then Sunday, because here at Everton we need European football.
“Yes, it was awkward and makes things difficult and your job a bit harder, but I would rather have it than not have it.”
Neighbours Liverpool share the record for lifting the trophy most alongside Juventus and Inter Milan, having won in 1973, 1976 and, most memorably, in 2001. The Anfield outfit’s rich European heritage means they are almost duty bound to treat this season’s Europa League with respect, a matter of which new manager Brendan Rodgers is fully aware as his side aim to reach the group stage by seeing off Hearts, the first leg of which takes place at Tynecastle this week.
Nevertheless, their approach will be pragmatic.
“For me and the players, it won’t be taken lightly,” said Rodgers.
“But while I don't want to disrespect the Europa League there's no doubt the league is our priority and we want to finish as high as we possibly can. The Europa League is a competition we'd like to do well in.
“I want to manage and navigate my way around it; to make sure the players are fit enough but also make sure we are strong enough – which I believe we will be – to do well in it.
“It is a European competition. It is the UEFA Cup. The last time this club won it was when they won the treble in 2001, and I’m sure when they won it there was a real sense of achievement. It’s an important competition.”
That 2001 win was the last by an English club. And while Spain have won five of the last nine competitions, that the other major European leagues view the Europa League in the lesser light is apparent by their number of finalists – since 1999 England have had only four, Germany two, France one and Italy none.
The Thursday-Sunday-Thursday schedule, fashioned so the Champions League is the sole television focus on a Tuesday and Wednesday of a European midweek, and the lengthy qualification process – Liverpool could end up playing 19 games if they reach May’s final in Amsterdam – remains a bugbear to Premier League managers.
Speaking last week, Alan Pardew, whose Newcastle United team join the competition this week, said: “I don’t think I am alone in thinking the Europa League is misconceived in terms of the way it is put together.
“You play so many games and then the Champions League teams fall down to the Europa League – what’s all that about?
“The fact we will have to juggle our playing staff for the Premier League and the Europa League fixtures means we have to take a bit of a gamble with our chances of progressing in Europe.
“There isn’t a lot of money in it, not unless you win the thing. Not compared to the Premier League.”
Pardew is right to state the tournament is too unwieldy. The group stage should be scrapped, the qualification process shortened and teams that fail in the Champions League group stage shouldn’t be given a second chance in the Europa League.
But he misses one important point. Newcastle supporters haven’t seen their team claim a major trophy since 1969, when they won the Europa League’s forerunner, the Fairs Cup.
And as long as there is silverware as well as prestige to play for, both Everton and Liverpool will happily put themselves out for the Europa League.