The Europa League has a bad reputation. At least it does in Britain. It’s seen as worse than an after-thought, not even a consolation prize but rather an unwelcome distraction for teams who qualify for it.
At the end of every season the same tired viewpoint is rolled out that the teams in and around 5th place in the Premier League are actively battling each other not to qualify for Europe’s secondary competition.
However, it does not have to be this way. We do not have to narrow our eyes and squint suspiciously at the Europa League and its Thursday night football. It may take more than an article titled with a dodgy Elton John pun to convince you of it, but allow me to try anyway.
The group stages of the Europa League (as well as something called the Champions League) sputtered into life last week. One could not have missed the beginning of the Champions League, such was the fan-fare and blanket coverage it received across all sports media.
On the flip side, it is entirely plausible for a reasonably clued in football fan to be unaware that the Europa League also began this week, such is the lack of interest from the general media in Britain and Ireland.
As I have already said, this dis-interest is bred from a culture of suspicion and distrust from the Premier League towards the Europa League. There is something ingrained in the collective footballing brain that playing Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons is harmful, evil and a sign of the apocalypse.
Every year, pens are sharpened and stories are ready to run when Spurs – it always seems to be Spurs – continue to under-perform game after game following a midweek European excursion. This is then used as a stick with which to beat the competition and expose its apparent lack of value to English teams.
There are legitimate criticisms to make against the Europa League. The qualification system begins at a farcically early stage in July and the structure can appear to be quite bloated, especially when allowing entry for not only third placed teams from the Champions League group stages, but also losers from the final qualification round of the same tournament, but the indifference shown by both media and teams from England is baffling.
English indifference to the tournament is clearly not shared continent wide, thankfully. Most teams in the competition appear committed to going as far as they can and embrace it to its full value. One only needs look at Sevilla, four times winners (and twice in the last three years) and Benfica (winners and finalists twice in recent years) to see that strong European teams are willing to take the Europa League seriously.
Part of the problem seems to boil down to a snobbishness about the level at which it is played. It seems that if European football does not mean the bright lights of the Camp Nou, teams walking out to the oil-company sponsored anthem then it is not worth playing in.
The argument that teams have to travel to far-flung corners of the continent to play a game is essentially a cover for people who know nothing about the opposition in this far flung corner of the continent. It appears that for some, Europe has shrunk to contain only five or six countries worth visiting.
Perhaps it is too much football for some. Perhaps Thursday night is the night they go to the cinema or watch their favourite television programme. Maybe they just need a break from the omni-presence of football in our lives now. But that is no reason to run down a tournament which can instead be used as almost a journey of discovery through the lesser travelled trails of European football.
Sitting down to watch the Europa League (especially at the group stages), one never quite knows what to expect. It is a novelty, and somewhat of a thrill. It is refreshing to watch a game between two teams you know nothing about. No preconceived notions of players, no expectations of where the game will go. It is very unusual in modern football to end up in this situation.
In this money-driven, shrunken landscape of modern football, the Europa League can be quite a throw-back. In the time before the Champions League (otherwise known as before football was actually invented), the European Cup was the premier competition on the continent.
If one takes time to look back at results from the European Cup, it is plain to see that trips to the furthest edges of the continent are nothing new. Teams have always had long journeys to far away countries to face obscure and almost mysterious teams. The difference between then and now is that we have the pleasure of seeing these games, of broadening our horizons and removing some of the mystery.
The Europa League is often branded boring and uninteresting but surely these tags now apply more readily to the group stages of the Champions League, which seem to exist solely as a way for the biggest clubs to allow lesser teams a brief window to dig their nose into the trough before trampling them into the dirt when the good slop is served out.
When the same ten teams are consistently making the last 16 of the tournament and one can make a very decent fist of naming six or seven of the quarter finalists every year, perhaps it is time to admit that Europe’s premier club competition is not as selective as it used to be about who they let in the door.
I have spent quite a while now defending the Europa League and attempting to show just why it deserves much more respect than it is given at times. What must be made absolutely clear at this stage is that while the secondary competition is in fact a Very Good Idea, the rumoured third tier competition would be a Very Bad Idea Indeed.
One of the arguments against the Europa League is that competing in it hurts a team’s chance of qualifying for the Champions League through league standings.
While sides in the Europa League have shown this to be manifestly not true – as well as the fact that sides with Champions League ambitions will likely have a squad capable of contending on two fronts, or at least should do – teams who may be targeting a Europa League place would truly only be harmed by a third European competition.
Squad depth as we drop down the league tables is not as great as those in the elite and balancing league, cup and European commitments would likely prove too tough to manage.
If this third tier does come to pass, two questions are raised. Firstly, at what point do we stop with European competition before diminishing the achievement of having qualified in the first place? And secondly, is this the tipping point away from domestic leagues to an out and out pan-European league system, long mooted to be the desire of the top Champions League clubs?
If the Champions League is now too sanitised, too corporate and too full of Uefa’s bluster, the Europa League can be said to be almost the opposite of this. The games feel rawer, less produced and managed.
The stadiums are not as new and shiny and sparkling, the anthem is not as catchy or inspiring. Uefa do not rush to make a huge deal of every draw or match. It is slightly under-loved and underground and, I believe, all the better for it.
There is a nostalgic air to the tournament, backed up by the runs deep into the competition last season made by traditional European stalwarts like Club Brugge and Dynamo Kyiv. One does not find the same three or four teams reaching the latter stages every year, bar, it seems, Sevilla, nor does one hear the same names mentioned year after year as the stand-out performers.
In an age where football seems to have shrunken down to only a handful of teams, the Europa League offers us the escape hatch back to a time of blissful ignorance where we could sit down and simply enjoy a game of football. Next Thursday night, why not give that a go?