Competition should provide fun to week of self-important tension
12 March ~ Before the round of 32 first-legs, the BBC website ran the headline "Europa League: Premier League hopes damaged by competition". Yet Everton’s 4-1 win in Bern that night could help them double their European trophy haul. Radio Scotland journalist Tom English believed Inter were ideal opposition for Celtic at that stage because it would “feel like a Champions League night”. But the ensuing 3-3 draw was the opposite of the “tactical chess matches” we’d witnessed in Paris, Lviv and Basel the previous nights.
The Europa League is the fun ending to a week of self-important tension. Rather than waiting three weeks between legs, it gets through a round in seven days. Furthermore its down-at-heel aristocrats, under-appreciated heavyweights and minnows fighting for regional pride celebrate all the history the Champions League reduces to subtext.
Celtic v Inter reprised the 1967 European Cup final. On the same night, against Athletic Bilbao, Torino echoed their European pinnacle by drawing 2-2 at home, as they did when losing the 1992 UEFA Cup final to Ajax. Athletic, in a Mexico-style away strip based on the Ikurriña flag of Spain’s Basque region, were returning to the ground where they contested the 1977 UEFA Cup final against Juventus.
Partizan Belgrade and Saint-Étienne, eliminated before Christmas, were both beaten finalists in The Big One before Red Star and Marseille had their greatest triumphs. Rather than contrary or obscurantist, loving this tournament is wantonly sentimental. Celtic, Feyenoord and Steaua Bucharest – all European champions in the pre-Champions League era – recreated old atmospheres this season.
I find myself skimming through the Champions League goals programmes. The wonder is removed when we can watch live games and collected highlights from every major European domestic league. But you won’t get the Slovak Super Liga on BT Sport. You won’t see Pasienky, Slovan Bratislava’s second, insubstantial home, next door to the site of Tehelne Pole, the last ground on which Nazi Germany played. ITV4 doesn’t carry domestic highlights from Azerbaijan – only the Europa League shows us Qarabag. You won’t see Turkey’s Trabzonspor in their Scunthorpe colours, nor learn that Croatia’s Rijeka play at the foot of cliffs on the Adriatic coast.
Frequent sparse crowds in the Europa League recall the days before continental football belonged to the Domino’s and Budweiser generation soullessly recycling a surfeit of emotion skimmed off a misreading of Fever Pitch. As well as smug self-satisfaction, European competition should reflect existential restlessness. Matchday five saw Dynamo Kiev in a quarter-full, snow-covered Olympic stadium, Russian tanks on the country’s borders, heavyweight boxing champion and mayor of the city Vitali Klitschko in the executive boxes and Rio Ave, already eliminated, toiling on Ukranian grass for nothing but the pride of stopping people like me continually confusing them with Estoril Praia, Vitoria Setubal and all those other Portuguese clubs who aren’t Sporting, Benfica or Porto.
By the round of 32, with Champions League dropouts introduced, the Europa League wanes just when it should be intensifying. With the eventual winners entering next season’s Champions League it becomes an amalgam of consolation cup and qualifying tournament. By the round of 16 only four clubs aren’t previous European finalists and only Ukraine’s Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk remain enigmatic.
After the collapse of the USSR they changed their name from the Russian Dnepr, a hub of the Soviet armaments industry omitted from cold war maps. With Russian militarism now forcing Dnipro to move home games, even UEFA should realise European competition is about more than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Heineken and Playstations. Alex Anderson