The Europa League has had a bad press recently. Georgina Turner sets out to defend the tournament and dispel some myths
It’s May 9, 2012. About 10.30pm local time in Bucharest. Tottenham captain Ledley King looks embarrassed as he turns away from UEFA president Michel Platini, raises the Europa League trophy not much above chin height and quickly hands it down the line. Around him the Stadionul National is silent except for the noise of television crews packing up, litter being picked and the runners-up heading back down the tunnel – their supporters have already filed out of the ground and Tottenham’s were never here. Some of them have seen the result on the news and some received texts from friends. But who cares?
Of course, it’s a ridiculous scenario to concoct. Ledley King fit to play? Spurs winning a European trophy? And if ever those two moons did move into alignment, it’s hardly likely that no one would turn up to watch it; that folk wouldn’t be intoxicated by the sheer joy of a triumphant march abroad. So why, as Manchester City pulled clear in fourth, did some Spurs and Liverpool fans urge their teams to surrender fifth place and its Europa League reward? We need to focus on finishing fourth next season, they said earnestly.
Let’s put aside, for now, the emotional poverty of any football fan gladly trading real live participation in one cup for nothing except a shot at having the chance to qualify for another, and just for sport see if we can’t otherwise pooh-pooh the supposed logic of the argument that playing in the Europa League would destroy a club’s Champions League hopes.
A key point seems to be the burdensome schedule; apparently playing Europa fixtures on Thursday nights makes it impossible for a team to finish fourth in the Premier League. Certainly there are implications for recovery times (and thus squad rotation), and though Manchester City actually won the majority of their post-Europe fixtures, we might set some store by the fact that four of their nine league defeats followed Europa League outings.
But the schedule is hardly a world away from the Champions League. Manchester United averaged a longer break between European and domestic fixtures (four days to City’s three) but their two post-Champions League defeats actually followed four- and five-day breaks. They were unbeaten on the four occasions – all away from home – that they played within three days of a European trip. It’s impossible to establish any direct causal link between playing in Europe and dips in domestic form.
Anyway, if the point is to play in the Champions League, wouldn’t it be good for a club to have experience of managing this kind of thing? As well as working on mental fortitude, a lengthy Europa League campaign would be a decent indicator of a squad’s true depth. City, also FA Cup winners, actually managed to finish third while playing in the Europa League and even pilfered a souvenir goal celebration to remember it by.
Neither does the other popular argument – that the Europa League is a pointless contest for the continent’s no-marks and nearly-men – stand up. Admittedly, UEFA haven’t helped with the recent format expansion, but even in the last two seasons the Europa League has included six European Cup winners and a clutch of finalists. If you’re happy to play in the Champions League on the basis of being the fourth-best team in England, you can’t really get snooty about mixing it with the second-best team in Holland or the champions of Portugal. It’s not as if there’s evidence to suggest that any English team would find it embarrassingly easy to win the thing.
It’s a mistake to assume that everyone is so cynical about it as fans can be in this country, but even for the cynic the Europa League has its appeals. It’ll attract good players for a start – perhaps not the best players, but better players than clubs without City’s bank balance might sign otherwise. It’ll earn you more in matchday revenue, a boost for clubs like Spurs, who don’t make as much from White Hart Lane as they’d like. Channel 5 probably doesn’t pay as well as Sky, but it’s better than nothing. And that’s the choice here: not Champions or Europa League, but something or nothing.
Some fans will say that once you’ve had a taste of the Champions League, nothing is quite the same. Please. Spurs have had some fantastic nights this season, moments to savour at the San Siro, outrageous comebacks at White Hart Lane. They won’t be diminished by a Europa League jaunt, any more than the No 4 shirt worn by Bill Nicholson and Danny Blanchflower was tainted by its spell on Vinny Samways.
Liverpool won the European Cup four times between 1977 and 1984, but that didn’t stop their supporters enjoying 2001’s UEFA Cup triumph, even if it’s reasonable to argue that the drama of the final – a 5-4 epic against Deportivo Alaves, won by a golden own goal deep in extra time – helped. Birmingham City have just been relegated, but the thrill of winning the League Cup remains, as real as the trophy. No fans should kid themselves that they have a greater luxury of choice than Bluenoses. Just ask Arsenal supporters.
It’s bad enough for club owners, steered by their wallets rather than their hearts, to care more for the company they keep than the titles they claim. When fans are fetishising some kind of elite, trophyless status, the game really is up.
From WSC 293 July 2011