Five ways to rescue the Europa League

Posted by Rory Smith

Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty ImagesCruyff Jr. cannot hide his sadness at not meeting Mitten in person.

You've probably noticed the posters. You'll almost certainly have heard the adverts on the radio, or seen the trails on the television. Wherever you go, the glamour of it is inescapable. Managers and players await in breathless excitement; this is the moment they have dreamed about. This is the competition they savour. That's right.

This week, the Europa League is back.

Of course, there haven't really been any posters or adverts or trails. As ever, Europe's secondary competition will start on Thursday with little or no fanfare. All of that is reserved for the Champions League, which is greeted like Santa Claus at Christmas; the Europa League is treated more like an unloved, tight-fisted uncle. It's coming round, whether you like it or not, and it probably won’t be bringing a present.

This is a tremendous shame. Younger readers may find it difficult to believe, but there was a time when the UEFA Cup -- which is what the Europa League used to, and should still, be called -- was probably the most interesting of the three European competitions.

That's right; there used to be three. It worked perfectly. On alternate Tuesday nights, the UEFA Cup graced our screens. Wednesday was European Cup night, and on Thursdays came the long since departed Cup Winners' Cup.

All three had their unique charms. The European Cup was the main event, the champions against the champions, the elite. The Cup Winners' Cup was a carnival of the unknown. Because of the inherently arbitrary nature of domestic cup competitions, there would always be a Vicenza, or a Stuttgart, or a Mallorca. They had players you'd never heard of, shirts you'd never seen. They had a mystique.

The UEFA Cup, often, was the best. It was sprawling, yes, but that was its appeal: it included three, four or five sides from each of the major nations, and invariably one or two of them would go on to win their domestic championship that year. The UEFA Cup was a glimpse into the future. These were (sometimes, not always) the sides with the bright young stars, the innovative managers, the clubs on the way up, not on the inevitable path down.

All of that has gone now. The primacy of the Champions League has made the Europa League a distinct second-class competition. It has robbed Europe of its mystique. It is the same clubs, in the same combinations, playing the same ties, every year. It was unthinkable, two decades ago, that Barcelona facing AC Milan would somehow become boring, run-of-the-mill. It has. They seem to be playing each other every couple of weeks.

It has widened the chasm between those clubs who make the Champions League every year and those who don't, hurting not only those teams outside of the major television markets, like Panathinaikos, Legia Warsaw and Red Star Belgrade, but also inflicting a deep, lasting damage on domestic leagues. It has proved the most effective opiate of the people the elite could have hoped for, allowing the few to swell their own coffers while damning the many. And all the while, the football-watching public, the stakeholders, the consumers, have watched and applauded and asked for more.

There are those of us who would welcome a revolution, who would willingly see the Champions League reduced in scale -- perhaps only encompassing the top two from each of the major leagues -- and who would, even, bring back the Cup Winners' Cup. Part of this is an atavistic yearning, a naive nostalgia for a past not as glorious as it seems in the mind's eye. But part of it is born from a genuine belief that the way things were was a better representation of the way they should be.

It is, however, unrealistic, as the fact that UEFA are discussing whether to abolish the whole competition proves; a decision will be made on that next year.

That would be enormously regrettable. Not simply because it would starve dozens of clubs of European adventure, but because a few simple changes could revitalise the Europa League. There is no turning back in a sport ever more administered by the rich on behalf of the rich. But a strong Europa League is good for UEFA, good for the Champions League, and good for the game.

1. Give both finalists a Champions League spot

UEFA, to their credit, have already confirmed that the 2015 winners will enter the following season's Champions League. Quite why they have waited so long -- and quite why it is not the 2014 winners -- is unclear, but it is a step in the right direction.

This is, to some extent, a placebo: the team who wins the Europa League, more often than not, qualifies for the elite competition through its domestic league anyway. Still, it is an incentive, and they might still go further: put the runners-up in the third qualifying round, and seed the winners in the group stages. That doubles the incentive.

2. Play it on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

This is even simpler. Playing the Europa League on a Thursday is damning it to be seen as an afterthought. It is condemning it to a life as the methadone to the pure, uncut opium of the Champions League. So why not play it in a different week? One week, the Champions League, the next week Europa. Easy. And it would remove the issue of forcing teams to play Thursday-Sunday for most of the season, which -- bafflingly, given that they get just as much rest as a team on a Wednesday-Saturday schedule -- seems to encourage managers to send out the reserves in Europe.

3. Eliminate some of the Champions League dropouts

You can make a cogent argument for saying that no rejects from the Champions League should be allowed to enter the Europa League. That is a tad draconian: those sides which come in after the Champions League qualifiers serve to increase the overall standard of competition. But teams dropping in from the group stages makes the tournament unnecessarily complex. They have had their shot at Europe; they have had access to Champions League TV money. They have had their go. Leave them to lick their wounds, contemplate their failure and count their coins.

Ian MacNicol/Getty ImagesSome would argue that 2012-13 champions Chelsea should not have been given a Europa League lifeline after crashing out of the Champions League group stage.

There would be a secondary benefit to this: the extra knock-out round could be abolished, too. That extra game could be used for an extra qualifier, before the competition is reduced from 12 groups to 10; the winners of each pool, and the six best runners-up, would qualify.

4. Increase the prize money

When Atletico Madrid won the Europa League in 2012, they received 10.5 million euros -- in prize money and television pool revenue -- for their troubles. Athletic Bilbao, whom they beat in the final, got a million less. In total, the sides who contested the competition received 150 million euros.

Diego Simeone's side earned more than Porto -- 7.7 million euros -- had the previous year, and Chelsea got more still for their victory in Amsterdam in May. That is a welcome trend, even if the total pot for the tournament remains steady. But it remains a drop in the ocean compared to the Champions League, where the winners generally receive somewhere between 50 and 60 million euros, depending on the proportion of their national television pool they can claim.

In 2011, UEFA made 225 million euros from the Europa League, and a billion or so from the Champions League. There is no reason why more of that money could not be allocated to the secondary tournament.

5. Make it voluntary

Some coaches -- like Andre Villas-Boas and David Moyes -- always take the Europa League seriously. They genuinely want to win it; they realise that victory in any competition is beneficial to their clubs and their players. Others, like Harry Redknapp, see it as an inconvenience.

This was always odd. They spent all season declaring that they were aiming for a European spot, and then as soon as they had one, they would effectively surrender it.

So allow them to opt out, rather than cluttering up the group stages with teams comprised of, to quote Noel Gallagher, wannabes and never-gonna-bes. With genuine incentives on offer, few would choose that route, but it would be helpful if everyone in the competition was actually taking it seriously. That used to be the way of things. It should be again.


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