‘I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me. I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition.’ – Jose Mourinho
‘I really don’t see myself in the Europa League and don’t want to play in it. I couldn’t care less about winning the trophy.’ – Arjen Robben
International weeks must be one of the strangest phenomena of the modern football era; From the hustle and bustle of the domestic European leagues, European campaigns and stories emerging in what seems at an hourly rate in between fixtures, it suddenly grinds to an almost halt until the international fixtures arrive.
Having found an abundance of time on one’s hands in this particular international week, you could be forgiven to cast your mind back over how the season is unraveling and what lies in store for your club with the finishing line just up on the horizon – no doubt as the final whistle blows at Wembley following the friendly with Italy, all eyes will be firmly focused once again on the battle for the Champions League placings, the relegation battle and the battle of Britain showdown between Liverpool and Manchester City in the upcoming Champions League meeting between the two.
While all of the above does indeed set the pulse racing in anticipation, little focus seems to fall on the battle for seventh – the so-called ‘best of the rest’ placing in the league table, why may you ask, simple, the ‘winners’ get the unenviable task of navigating their way through some of Europe’s furthest outposts, whether it be Ukraine, Russia or Belarus in the Europa League.
Since it’s inception in 1971 when the Uefa Cup preceded the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was played between 1955 and 1971, it has been looked down upon ever since, and in 1999, Uefa went further one step further to enhance the competition when in it’s best wisdom it merged the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup in with the Uefa Cup, a further five years down the road, saw yet another rebrand, this time with a group stage to incorporate the amount of participants involved; the rebranding fun and games were still not over just yet, as in 2009 the much maligned Intertoto Cup merged with the Uefa Cup to what we now know as the Uefa Europa League.
Quite why it gets looked down on remains a mystery, yes the European Cup/Champions League has, and will always take away a lot of the glitz and glamour, mainly because the competition has the domestic champions and richest sides competing on an almost weekly basis in its current format – in yesteryear it was a straight knockout competition between Europe’s domestic champions, now with all the money swimming around football since the 1990’s, the Champions League has evolved into a competition looked upon as, maybe, more prestigious than the World Cup.
So back to the Uefa Cup/Europa League, yes it may have the most drawn out qualifying process known to man, and yes the constant re-branding throughout the years may have, at times reduced the competition as a laughing stock – but couldn’t that be said of the Champions League, where year on year, you can be certain that the same five or six sides will be in the quarterfinals and beyond, playing the same fixtures season upon season, the Champions League has become, or is fast becoming an elitist playground, and only a selected few are invited to play – and let’s not get into the debate on the Champions League group stage.
When you analyse the winners of the competition it does make for startling reading, from its inception in 1971, the winners roll call usually coincides with winners from the same country in the European Cup. When Feyenoord won the title in 1974, Ajax had won the previous season’s European Cup and in 1975 when Borussia Monchengladbach triumphed over Twente, Bayern Munich were in the midst of a treble of European Cups from 1974-76, England dominated the European Cup from 1977-1984 and also added two Uefa Cups, with Ipswich Town and Tottenham Hotspur respectively in 1981 and 1984. In 1989 to 1991 when AC Milan were winning back to back European Cups, Napoli, Inter Milan and Juventus were following up and continuing the Italian European dominance in the Uefa Cup.
In recent modern football for those that believe statistics only started being collated as of 1992, the trend is relevant as of 2014, Sevilla have swept all before them in the current format of the Uefa Europa League, while their much richer and historical rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona have cleaned up on the Champions League front, hell, Atletico Madrid have won the Uefa Cup twice this decade in 2010 and 2012, plus making two Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016.
So to consign the Europa League to the laughing stock of European football isn’t exactly fair, rather than being the nuisance of the domestic calendar as managers suggest, Mr Wenger stating that the Thursday/Sunday programme proved more gruelling than the Wednesday/Saturday programme is quite plainly nonsense in its most pungent form.
What the Europa League does, is further validate the dominance of a particular league and country at any one point, Spain in the modern era, England, Germany and Italy in decades gone by, so rather than be a hindrance as Stoke, Southampton and Everton have treated the competition in recent years, after a hard season trying to qualify for the thing. It should be looked upon as a reflection of how strong the domestic league is at the point of competition.
So for Burnley, Leicester or Everton should they make it, wouldn’t it for once make a nice change if they looked upon the Europa League as a chance to reflect on how strong our Premier League is.
Yes, the qualifying is more drawn out than an Eastenders storyline and yes the format doesn’t do the competition justice with the Champions League sides dropping in after the group stage – wrong in my view – but with the added carrot of Champions League football for the winners, hopefully the competition can grab some of its glamour back.
While it will never compete with its more glamorous big brother in the Champions League, the Europa League has a history and produced some memorable moments all on its own.
Who can forget the unbelievable final of 2001 when Liverpool added the Uefa Cup as part of their Treble Mark II by defeating Deportivo Alaves 5-4 in Dortmund, Jose Mourinho for all of his part digs at Rafa Benitez by stating the competition isn’t for him, he may want to review his postition slighty, especially after the Uefa Cup in 2003 arguably launched him into the eyes of Europe’s top clubs by defeating Celtic in another memorable final with Porto, and no one saw him complaining last season when Manchester United needed the competition to ensure they required qualification to the Champions League – ironically they fell to the Europa League king pins in Sevilla, but that is a story for another day – Bill Shankly and Liverpool used the Uefa Cup in 1973 as a springboard for European dominance that saw four European Cups fill the Anfield trophy cabinet in eight years.
To look down on the Europa League as a hindrance, a nuisance or an excuse for domestic oversight is a huge inaccuracy on some of the games’ more modern thinkers and so-called philosophers.
Let us pay the competition the respect it deserves and perhaps start to embrace it a little more than we do.
Maybe, just maybe, it can start reflecting the power and strength that English football claims it beholds.