Tuesday, 28 June 2011

There IS a Point to the Europa League - But it's a Sinister One

The dark, conspiracy theorist part of my brain has long been very cynical when it comes to the Europa League, so here goes.

There are plenty out there who aren't big fans of the competition. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp once said “I think everyone that gets in it (the Europa League) wants to be out of it. They put reserve teams out every game." Many Spurs fans, as their season meandered towards 5th place in the Premier League rather than 4th and a second crack at the Champions League, shared a similar sentiment.

You'll all be glad to know, however, that I believe the competition does have a purpose. But you might not like it.

The Europa League is UEFA's way of maintaining the status quo. How? Just look at the amount of games you need to play to win the thing. By the time you get through an opening play-off round, a 6-game group stage, and then two-legged games from the round of 32 onwards (final not included), the winner of the Europa League will have played a grand total of 17 games in order to win the tournament. Even if you play a reserve side in the play-off round, they might still win and then you're faced with six games and there's nothing to be done about it. You could continue to field reserve sides, but then there's the potential for fan backlash which no manager wants to deal with.

Financially it would not appear to be worth it, either. Winning a match in the Europa League group stage is worth €120,000 - not even a week's wages for a lot of the top players. Winning a match in the Champions' League group stage is worth a staggering €800,000. A team is awarded a further €360,000 for reaching the quarter-finals of the Europa League; reaching the equivalent stage of the Champions League rewards the team with €3,200,000.

This is not to suggest that the two competitions should offer parity, because the gulf in quality is quite obvious - the gulf in funding, however, is disproportionately more significant. Is it really worth it to compete in the Europa League? A team might well enjoy a great run, yes; I don't want to detract from the great string of upsets Fulham performed in 2010 before their narrow, heartbreaking loss to Atletico Madrid in the final. Fulham, though, are generally a midtable club. They had qualified for the Europa League only by finishing in their highest ever league position of seventh. Seventh was only a Europa League position in the first place due to a relatively unlikely sequence of events involving the league positions of domestic cup winners and runners-up.

No, my gripe is the effect the Europa League has on the teams that are most likely to challenge the established order. How many extra games, trips to far-flung areas of Europe, does a team have to endure in a season for little financial reward or reputational gain? After all, winning the tournament is the only way a team can really gain reputation from the Europa League. Meanwhile, Tottenham merely reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League has sky-rocketed their reputation across Europe (as well as sky-rocketing the valuation of their players, not that Chelsea got the memo).

It is notable that when Spurs finally broke the established "top 4", they did so in a season where two things happened. One, Tottenham had not qualified for the Europa League in the previous season, and so had a campaign free of extraneous games (barring a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup). Two, Liverpool finished third in their Champions League group, and were relegated to the knockout stages of the Europa League, where they got to the semi-finals; that's an extra 8 games and 4 trips abroad in a losing effort.

Porto won the 2010/11 Europa League, but is the competition
worth it for clubs attempting to break the glass ceiling?

True, in 2010/11 Manchester City qualified while simultaneously playing in the Europa League but, vitally, both of their rivals were also caught up in European Competition (Tottenham in the Champions League, Liverpool in the Europa League), as well as having enough money to buy two adequate starting line-ups.

The idea that UEFA would try so hard to establish a "status quo" isn't so outlandish. Let's not forget the existence of the G-14, an organisation that ran from 2000-2008 and incorporated many of Europe's top clubs, such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan. The existence of the G-14 alone was fundamentally elitist and, in fairness, UEFA president Michel Platini exposed them as such and called upon them to disband. However, it is the fact that such a cabal could even exist in the first place and survive for so long that speaks volumes about the state of Europe's top clubs andtheir position in the game today.

It benefits almost everyone to have the top clubs in the Champions League each year. The Champions League becomes a far more valuable product with the valuable draws consistently going deep into the competition. Teams like Manchester United, Barcelona etc have helped make it what it is today, like it or not - they are the draws that allow UEFA to secure the huge sponsorship deals, commission the epic-sounding orchestral anthem. In return, UEFA provide that prize money package.

Is it all one big conspiracy to keep the smaller clubs down? No, that seems a little farfetched. Would UEFA rather Liverpool were in the Champions League than Tottenham or Manchester City? Would they rather Juventus were there instead of, say, Fiorentina? I would say this is hard to debate. I can't be the only one who was surprised that when UEFA rebranded and re-organised the competition two years ago, they did not seek to streamline it. In fact, they added two more group games and one further away trip.

Are UEFA so out of touch with the conditioning of modern players, the very real potential for burnout? The recent allegations of corruption, and the realisation that the world's top football organisations actually have football itself lower on the priority list than it should be, would indicate that they might just be. But if they're not, then I don't see what other explanation there is - other than the fact that we might not be dealing with a fully objective governing body here.

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