Thursday 9 July ~

Shock news: UEFA rule change makes life harder for clubs and fans. Now there’s a sentence you haven’t read for at least – I don’t know – a week. The change is in the qualifying format for the Europa League. Where once it was simple and sensible, now it’s expensive and illogical. It’s bad enough when UEFA’s tinkering affects Manchester United, or Milan. These changes make life harder for Lisburn Distillery and Llanelli.

Last season, and for a number of seasons before, the first two qualifying rounds of the UEFA Cup were regionalised into north, central-east, and southern-Mediterranean. When UEFA includes 53 nations, and stretches from Iceland in the west to Kazakhstan in the east, this was vital. It meant part-time sides – which are the majority in early rounds – weren’t forced to fly half way round the world. So, for example, in last season’s UEFA Cup first qualifying round, Bangor and Cliftonville went to Denmark, St Pat’s and Glentoran went to Latvia, TNS went to Lithuania, and Cork went to Finland.

The draw was seeded – so, for example, a Welsh team couldn’t meet a Faroese team – which meant the draw became a mite predictable. From 2004 to 2008, there was only one season a Welsh team didn’t draw a Latvian team. But on the whole it made sense. This season, despite protests from national associations, regionalisation in the Europa League has ended. It means there was nothing to stop Sligo Rovers drawing Okzhetpes Kokshetau of Kazakhstan: 4,000 miles, and an expensive charter flight, to the east. As it was, Sligo drew Vllaznia of Albania. Not even Ryanair fly there. And, best of all, the draw was made just ten days before the first leg. They have longer to organise FA Cup replays.
Some may say it’s exciting. Or, indeed, may argue the point of European football is to leave your own cold corner of the continent. Perhaps. But for clubs who pay the bills, it’s a pain. Lisburn, for example, play in Georgia tonight, more than 2,000 miles away. They were beaten 5-1 in the home leg. There is, of course, compensation. UEFA pay clubs €90,000 (£77,600) for every qualifying round they play in. But once you’ve taken 18 players, plus staff, for two nights in Albania, there’s not much change.
The end of regionalisation isn’t the only change in the Europa League. Where once there were three rounds before the group stage – first qualifying, second qualifying, and first – now, because of the demise of the Intertoto Cup, there are four. The group stage, once it arrives in September, has changed too: from groups of five to Champions League-style groups of four.

The Champions League has been changed, too. The qualifying rounds were never regionalised, so no change there. But there is now a pre-qualifying round of four teams, called the first qualifying round, for the champions of the lowest-ranked nations: Andorra, Malta, Montenegro and San Marino. From there, it’s the second qualifying round, with 34 teams in total, half seeded and half unseeded. Then, it’s the third qualifying round. Where, once again, it gets complicated.

The 30 teams in the third qualifying round draw will be split into two groups. In one group – the champions section – are 20 teams, made up of the 17 winners from the second qualifying round, and three new entrants, who all won their leagues: Olympiacos, Slavia Prague and Zurich. The remaining ten teams in the third qualifying round came second or third in some of Europe’s better, but not best, leagues. For example Anderlecht, Celtic and FC Twente. The idea is to guarantee more champions, rather than runners up, in the group stages.
The fourth qualifying round – called the play-off – features the 15 winners from the third qualifying round, plus five new entrants, including Arsenal. Again, the champions and runners-up are kept apart in the draw. From there – finally – it’s the group stages. Confused? UEFA are, too. All that, and they still can’t regionalise the Europa League draw. Owen Amos

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