The Europa League (formally known as the ‘UEFA League’, which began in 1971) was reinvented in 2009. Originally in the group stages, teams would play each other once, now you have to face each other at home and away. Michel Platini in 2008 had this to say about the new format being presented:
“I am convinced the new format will give the UEFA Europa League a successful new impetus. These changes will improve this historic competition, which is very important for UEFA and for European football as it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football.”
A statement on the UEFA website claimed it wanted to ‘rejuvenate the competition’ and to ‘establish itself as a major competition.’ Starting in the 2013/2014 season, any team which wins the Europa League tournament will automatically qualify for the Champions League. But are teams who compete in the Europa League ready to take a major step forward in the quality of football they face and has Michel Platini done what he planned to do in 2008 and improve the quality of the tournament?
In truth, the competition is a lot more serious than it was and with the prize of being entered into the Champions League the following season on offer it gives teams even more ambition to win it. The main problem with the Europa League is that the teams who enter don’t see it as a major tournament.
The ‘big teams’ of the tournament like S.S Lazio, Olympique Lyonnais, Tottenham Hotspur and Valencia CF coasted their way through the current group stages, facing unheard-of teams such as FC St. Gallen, HNK Rijeka, Apollon Limassol and Sheriff Tiraspol. This seems to be becoming a regular occurrence where the higher seeded teams get drawn against the lower seeded teams, and the gap in quality between the two is so extreme that the bigger teams don’t need to put up a fight until the quarterfinals.
Although the Europa League is seen as a great European Football experience in the lower ranking teams, many of the higher ranking teams merely see it as a ‘walk in the park’ and a means of gaining huge goal tallies against the opposition. However, it is a great opportunity for the higher ranked teams to give their reserve players the experience of first team football.
Another issue in the tournament is that the teams who finish third in the Champions League are then relegated to the knock out stages of the Europa League. This is unfair in many ways as UEFA are rewarding teams deemed not good enough to progress in the Champions League to bypass the group stages in the Europa League and to automatically go into the knockout stages. Needless to say, they also become the top seeds which is completely unjustified.
The smaller teams who have successfully progressed through to the knock out stages could see this as a positive. Teams like Slovan Liberec of Czech Republic, Swansea FC and FC Chornomorets Odesa of Ukraine can now look to face one of the better teams in Europe and see if they truly are up to the test of major European football. For example, Swansea FC, (a team which three years ago were playing in the Championship) have be drawn to play against S.S.C Napoli.
Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, Fulham FC and Newcastle United are the latest names to have competed in the Europa League. This is something that the fans and the club itself could have only dreamed of a few years ago. It’s given clubs like these a chance to make European history which can only be seen as a positive, not to mention, the invaluable experience that the players would have gained.
Another issue which needs to be addressed is the prize money in the competition. The winners of the final will win €5,000,000 (or £4,179,801). This sounds like a lot of money, but given that the winners of the Champions League get €10,500,000, and even losing in the final earns you more than winning the Europa League (€6,500,000) it’s a problem within the competition. The quality to win the Champions League is a lot greater than the Europa League, however to make the difference in prize money so great hardly seems fair.
Chelsea FC won the Europa League last season (finished third in the Champions League) defeating S.L Benfica (again, finished third in the Champions League) 2-1. Given how big these teams are, the prize money given is obviously not a lot. Teams like FC Girondins de Bordeaux and FC Steaua București who they knocked out to reach the final could have benefited a lot more from the prize money.
The Europa League is a great competition to be in depending on the size of the club. Teams like Chelsea FC, S.S.C Napoli and S.L Benfica view the tournament as a distraction rather than an importance. The reason these teams get sent into the knock out stages instead of nothing (which, in my opinion, they should get nothing) is that the teams who get knocked out from the Champions League are usually big teams which bring in larger audiences which essentially makes more money for UEFA. It’s not fair but that’s business.
To make the tournament a fairer and more important competition is to up the money received and to cancel out the bigger teams.The best thing for it would be a team like Swansea FC to win it as it shows that the Europa League adventure is an adventure worth following.