Evening up the Europa League

by Mark Leonard

Europa League LogoSeptember 1994. Phil King thumps a penalty home to dump Inter Milan out of the UEFA Cup.

October 1990. Villa Park erupts as Aston Villa beats Inter Milan 2-0 with Tony Daley tormenting the Italian legend, Giusseppe Bergomi. Let’s not talk about the fact that Inter turned us over 3-0 in the return at the San Siro.

These are my magic memories of the UEFA Cup. I’m an Aston Villa fan so I have to live in the past. The current team would struggle to beat eleven oompa-loompas coming off a double shift at the chocolate factory.

I even fondly remember Spurs beating Anderlecht in the final in 1984. Sometime between then and now, the UEFA Cup disappeared and was replaced by the bland spectacle of the Europa League.

Look at the final standings of the English Premier League in 2013. Arsenal finished on 73 points just ahead of Spurs on 72 points.

Arsenal qualified for the Champions League with glamour ties against Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, and Marseilles.

Spurs qualified for the Europa League and lined up in a turgid league structure against Anzhi Makhachkala, Sheriff Tiraspol, and Tromso.

The UEFA Cup promised a rich feast of delicately poised duels over two legs while the Europa League is akin to a thin and under-seasoned soup. If you’re a fan, the Europa League makes a night at home watching EastEnders seem like an exciting option.

The wonderful Swiss Ramble explains the economics of the Champions League versus the Europa League. Each of the 32 teams that qualify for the Champions League group stages is guaranteed a participation base fee of €8.6 million even if it loses every single game. Each of the 48 teams that qualify for the Europa League group stages is guaranteed a participation base fee of €1.3 million.

The Europa League places the demand of several extra games and midweek travel without offering the financial rewards to enable teams to bolster their squads. Qualification is a poison chalice for a team like Spurs that just missed out on a dream ticket to the Champions League.

How can UEFA make the Europa League better? I have three ideas.

1. Get rid of third-placed teams in the group stages of the Champions League parachuting into the Europa League. The Champions League teams give the Europa League the stench of failure as well as granting an unnecessary payoff to the already well compensated elite clubs. You got knocked out of the Champions League. Hard luck. Come back next year and try again!

2. Get rid of the league structure and return to the home-and-away knockout structure of the UEFA Cup. This will offer more immediacy and excitement for fans as well as fewer strains on squads that aren’t deep enough to play extra games.

3. Increase the prize money of the Europa League so that a team that performs well in the Europa League could be a genuine contender for Champions League qualification in their domestic league within a few seasons.

European domestic leagues and competitions are increasingly being dominated by the same teams. I’d love to see a return to the older days when the spoils were shared more widely. Bring back the UEFA Cup!

By Mark Leonard

Mark is Irishman living in San Francisco, he supports Aston Villa.

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