Monday 29 September ~
The Fairs Cup was created in 1955 as a competition for cities that entered trade fairs. The first tournament took a ludicrous three years to complete because fixtures were designed to coincide with the fairs. FIFA president and noted traditionalist Sir Stanley Rous was probably the only person who regretted the competition’s demise in 1971. But if any international tournament has offered more unlikely entry criteria, it may be the Fairs Cup’s successor, the UEFA Cup, or, as we now have to learn to call it, the Europa League.
The continent’s second-ranked club tournament is changing radically, dramatically, out of all recognition, if you believe UEFA’s breathless press release, which promises “wholesale changes”, “a fresh format” and a “new impetus”. In fact, of course, the competition is simply being rebranded. It has a new logo, a new name and a slightly different set-up, but basically the winners will be what they always have been – the best of the also-rans. Let us count the possible ways your club can enter. 1. Finishing just behind the Champions League qualifier; 2. Winning the domestic cup; 3. Winning the League Cup in eccentric countries such as England; 4. “Winning” the Intertoto Cup; 5. Through the Fair Play league; 6. Winning the league in countries too feeble to get a place in the Champions League; 7. Finishing third in the Champions League group stage; 8. Writing your club’s name on a piece of paper and slipping it into the hat in the certain knowledge that no one will be able to prove you have not qualified.
A UEFA spokesman says rather vaguely that the new tournament will result in “teams from emerging countries or lesser known teams challenging the ‘old’ order of established European clubs. It is exactly this special character that the new identity will seek to capture.” In the days when the Champions Cup was only for champions, there was some truth in that. A smaller club that did well in its league might easily find itself playing (and beating) Bayern Munich, as Norwich did in 1993, or Barcelona, as Dundee United did in 1987.
But now that the “old order of established European clubs” have all but guaranteed spots in the Champions League every year, no amount of tinkering – or even the centralising of marketing and TV rights – will bring back the rough credibility that the UEFA Cup had in the 1970s and 80s. That’s not to say it is entirely redundant. But for as long as it remains a repository for the sweepings of European football, rather than a genuine second-tier competition, Sir Stanley would still be convinced he was on the right lines all along. Mike Ticher