2021-22 brings us the first edition of UEFA’s newest tournament: the Conference League.
On a basic level it’s intended as an equaliser for European football. While UEFA have never done anything out of the goodness of their hearts, the Conference League is intended to give teams from weaker nations a greater day in the sun.
The coefficient pyramid is effectively inverted: the top European leagues of Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France supply just one team to the tournament, while the likes of Albania, Ireland, Luxembourg and Kazakhstan get three berths.
This is further supplemented by teams who lose the early Champions League qualifiers and the Europa League qualifiers, both of whom are typically teams from weaker nations.
It’s easy to be cynical and say this is merely UEFA throwing a bone to the outsiders as they work to make the Champions League even more exclusive to the top clubs, but ultimately it provides a greater shot at continental glory for teams who wouldn’t ordinarily sniff it, especially in the globalised era of football.
But at the same time there is grounds for some skepticism, namely that the knockout stages of the tournament will see eight third-place finishers from the Europa League group stage drop down into the Conference League knockouts, much like the Europa League receives the Champions League third places.
Which means, much like the Europa League, the Conference League is likely to become another of UEFA’s Loser Machines.
The absolute worst thing for the modern megaclub is to not be in Europe. Europe is where the money is. It has the most prestigious ties, and by extension the most eyes on it. To lose in Europe is not the end of the world so long as you’re always there, which was the basis of the European Super League fiasco.
But it wasn’t a new thought – it was one realised by UEFA in the 1990s. First when they expanded the Champions League to feature non-champions, and again in 1999 when they expanded the UEFA Cup. The Champions League and UEFA Cup were always intended as separate competitions. The Champions League for the cream of Europe, hence the name; the UEFA Cup as a ‘best of the rest’ for non-champions.
But if you’re on the money side of the game, this poses a problem. The Champions League, even in its expanded form after 1997, can’t accommodate everyone. Unfortunately, someone has to get knocked out, someone who might be fairly lucrative to have in front of the cameras. And once they’re out, there’s nowhere to go – back to playing domestic football to try again next year.
If you’re UEFA, that’s a problem, one that flared its head in 1998 when Barcelona, Benfica and Arsenal all went out in the groups in favour of teams like Olympiacos, Kaiserslautern and Dynamo Kyiv. What good is having a blockbuster tournament without blockbuster names?
Enter the 1999 format changes. The Champions League will now have eight groups with two going through from each, and if you finish third? Down into the UEFA Cup knockouts you go. It was perfect: maximise the chance for big name teams to get through, and if they don’t they can slip down to another tournament which often has some tasty names of its own in it. Only a catastrophic failure would keep you out of it, and in a tournament where pot four features the likes of Maribor, Malmo, Ludogorets and others with a mere fraction of the financial muscle the top clubs have, what are the odds of that?
And thus, the UEFA Loser Machine was born. It became apparent from the very first edition: the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup final featured two teams who both fell out of the Champions League groups, in spite of Champions League losers making up just a quarter of the knockout stage field.
This has happened five more times since, again in spite of that 1:3 ratio. To put it another way, there have been 22 UEFA Cup/Europa League finals since the expansion. Of these, more than a quarter have featured two CL dropouts, and almost two-thirds have featured at least one team who began the year in the Champions League.
Ultimately, this is the purpose of the current Europa League: to preserve the European status of its bigwigs who have found themselves in a slump. Be it a titan who’s fallen on harder times like Manchester United, or a big club with a big fanbase who just don’t quite have the financial power to adequately compete like Benfica. Whereas once the European campaign was over after six games, it’s been given a new lease of life for at least another two, if not more.
It doesn’t take a genius to observe the immense power imbalance that exists at the top of the game today, and these tournament expansions are one of the reasons that have entrenched it. There is no punishment for failure, or at least a substantially reduced one, and the deck is marked to ensure that even if someone slips through the cracks they still land on their feet.
In 2020-21 one team from outside the Big Five leagues made the knockout stages of the Champions League; the 1997-98 and 1998-99 had one and two such teams, despite the knockouts having half the pool of teams it does now. No team from outside the Big Five has made the Champions League final since 2004.
As for the Europa League, the consequences of trying to protect the power players seems to have come home to roost: no non-Big Five team has won it since 2011; none have made the final since 2017, and there hasn’t even been a winner who wasn’t English or Spanish since Porto’s triumph in Dublin a decade ago.
In many ways, the creation of the Conference League is an admission by UEFA that they have foisted a raw deal on many of their members to assuage the rich and the influential, and that even their second-tier tournament is no longer attainable for so many of their teams.
But then the Conference League may well be a Loser Machine of its own. Had it existed last year, the Conference League would have seen teams like Feyenoord, Basel, Galatasaray and Wolfsburg drop into it. Teams that were UEFA Cup winners in the early 2000s, now being handed a consolation prize to bandage over the fact that even the alternative is no longer attainable at their stature.
Originally the expanded UEFA Cup/Europa League was there to keep “The Others” happy. A place for Ajax and Benfica and Celtic, teams who lionise their days of being the kings of Europe, to pin their hopes of breaking their continental drought, like the reality that what they could once attain has surpassed them doesn’t matter.
Now, however, with the immense power of the Big Five leagues making juggernauts of perennial third and fourth place teams, even that seems to be falling out of their reach. The only option is to create another tournament under the guise of supporting the little guy, but really as just another safety net for millionaires trapped in a sea of billionaires.
Perhaps this is overly cynical: a ball has not been kicked yet, after all, but given the patterns outlined above and that this overhaul coincides with the Champions League’s reconfiguration to privilege the megaclubs even further, I think it’s warranted. I would like more than anyone to see the Conference League dominated by the unsung nations who rarely sniff a Europa League group spot, let alone Champions League. But as with anything regarding modern football, it is rarely done for the game of football.