When 'Europe' means something else

November 3, 2006
By Stephen Wolfe

Living rooms across Britain last night reverberated to the sound of commentators trying just a little too hard.

GettyImagesNote the empty stand behind Tugay as he celebrates his opening goal in Rovers' 3-0 win over Basle, which was witnessed by a mere 13,789 in the 31,367 capacity Ewood Park.

As Blackburn, Tottenham, Newcastle and Rangers all claimed victories, it was hard to shake a nagging reality - it's only the UEFA Cup.

The chance to watch Premiership sides on free-to-air TV might be one of the best things about the competition. Unfortunately, the relative rarity of such opportunities for 'lesser' channels causes them to hype up matches so much that even Sky would blush.

Newcastle's 1-0 win at Serie A high-fliers Palermo was a good result, no doubt, but not a result that will echo through the ages, as Five implied. After all, most of the Sicilians' best players were on the bench, including Mark Bresciano and World Cup-winner Cristian Zaccardo.

Furthermore, you have to question their motivation after their own club president said he wanted to lose before playing West Ham United in the last round.

'I hope Palermo will be beaten, so we can lighten the load,' said the venerable Maurizio Zamparini, who will have been cheered by Thursday night's result, but whose side still have work to do if they are to miss the cut. After all, a generous three out of five sides go through to the last 32, meaning it is mathematically possible to progress with a paltry two points.

Palermo already possess a whopping three, but have the comfort of knowing they will be sent packing if they lose their remaining games against Fenerbahçe and Celta Vigo.

Meanwhile, over on British Eurosport, Tugay's long-range pearler for Blackburn against Basel was greeted as though it had simultaneously sent Rovers three points clear in Group E and ended world poverty.

Still, it is gratifying to know that people can still get excited at a competition that seems purpose-built to produce meaningless games and half-hearted performances.

It's true that most UEFA Cup sides are not particularly glamorous, but the format is the real culprit. Eighty matches are played over three months to whittle the field down almost imperceptibly.

Three teams from each of the eight groups go through and are joined - unenthusiastically - by eight dropouts from the Champions League. That leaves 32 teams, just a handful or two fewer than the 40 who embarked on the group stage.

Consequently, a large number of teams rest their leading players, either knowing they can cruise through with a weakened side, or scarcely caring if they go out. In fact, not trying in Europe has almost become an article of faith, particularly for Italian sides.

Parma used to be the masters of this. Every season they would finish fifth or sixth in Serie A and bag themselves a spot in the UEFA Cup. Once there, they would field a virtual reserve side citing - à la Zamparini - the need to concentrate on their league form.

Their reward for this single-mindedness? A UEFA Cup berth, where they would play a reserve side in order to book their place for next season, and so on.

Why fight so hard to get into Europe if you aren't even going to make an effort once you get there?

Meanwhile, across the road at the metaphorical UEFA Cup disco, AZ Alkmaar and Wisla Krakow are drinking snakebite out of plastic cups and vainly trying to get Sevilla's mobile number.

The answer is obvious, or at least these days it is. When fans, players and managers go misty-eyed at that mythical beast 'Europe', they aren't thinking about Thursday nights in Mlada Boleslav.

They mean the Champions League, the golden goose that guarantees millions in television revenue and the chance to receive a couple of spankings at the hands of a G14 club.

It might seem rather sad that teams would rather lose six Champions League games than enter a competition they might actually win, but that's modern football. Winning is no longer the way to guarantee popularity and financial stability. Instead you just have to hang around with the right crowd.

The gulf in class - the traditional sociological meaning, not quality - between Champions League and UEFA Cup has become so great that even the days when the competitions are played seem to carry specific overtones.

Tuesday and Wednesday ooze prestige and wealth; Thierry Henry, Real Madrid, San Siro. Thursday is dowdy in comparison, awkward and dull; it is second-rate Bundesliga sides and teams from the continent's outer reaches.

The teams that have profited most from the Champions League have not done so because they keep winning it. Since its awkward transition from the European Cup in 1992, only AC Milan and Madrid have won the competition more than once.

Yet Manchester United and Bayern Munich have done equally well out of it, simply by virtue of being around. They might not get the girl, but they are always in the right club, sipping G & Ts and having a dance in their cordoned-off VIP area until they are quietly ushered out towards the end of the night.

Meanwhile across the road at - to extend a tired metaphor even further - the UEFA Cup disco, AZ Alkmaar and Wisla Krakow are drinking snakebite out of plastic cups and vainly trying to get Sevilla's mobile number.

So will the winter Champions League cull change anything for Europe's lower classes? It just might.

Of the teams currently lying third in their Champions League groups, and therefore in line to parachute into the UEFA Cup, one sticks out a mile from the traditional likes of Sporting Lisbon, Galatasaray and Olympiacos.

Barcelona.

GettyImagesThe involvement of Ronaldino and Barcelona could add much needed spark to the UEFA Cup

The European champions, the continent's glamour boys. The side whose allure remains undimmed even after six foul-tempered games against Chelsea in under two years.

If the Catalans fail to beat Bremen on the final match day - and the German side are absolutely no mugs - they could be peddling their self-important 'More Than a Club' schtick in Haifa, Belgrade or Waregem.

The UEFA Cup doesn't really have fans, just reluctant followers. But the prospect of the mighty Barcelona dropping into a town near you might just give Europe's penultimate club competition some much-needed lustre.

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