Athletico Madrid vs. Arsenal should be a marquee fixture, capable of attracting intrigue and stirring discussion. The fact that it wasn’t has little to do with the clubs themselves, but is instead a failing of the competition that brought them together. The same will be true tomorrow night, when the final of the most inconspicuous tournament in world football takes place in Lyon, writes James Adam Shaw.
The Europa League, UEFA’s second-tier club competition, is in something of a pickle. The circumstances that make its existence necessary are simultaneously those that have rendered it near-unwatchable. In short, UEFA’s decision to make the Champions League an even more exclusive affair has made the made continent’s alternative club competition indispensable — but it has also stripped it of its prestige.
Champions League: The Biggest Misnomer in Sports
Driven by an entirely justified fear of the inevitable creation of a European Super League, UEFA has been busy doing everything it can to appease the game’s giants. The Champions League, now the biggest nismomer in sports, is more a closed-off money league than it is a competition for Europe’s champion clubs. Most of the continent’s champions now have to struggle through three, or even four, treacherous qualifying rounds in order to reach the lucrative group stage. Meanwhile, the second, third, and fourth placed teams in the “Big Four” leagues gain automatic entry (as of 2018/19).
This is not to criticise the qualifying procedure for the UCL. UEFA knows which side its bread is buttered, and fans from across Europe would be prefer to see, say, Chelsea and Roma over the likes of Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg. But UEFA’s decision to prioritise money ahead of silverware has had two significant effects. In the first place, it has moved the tournament away from its heritage as a “Champion Clubs’ Cup”. But even more importantly, it has the diluted the quality of the Europa League. None of this, of course, is revelatory, but UEFA’s problem is nonetheless worth restating.
A Self-defeating Re-brand
Moreover, the peculiar decision to re-brand the UEFA Cup in 2009 has only served to invite more unfavourable comparisons between Europe’s second tier competition and the Champions League. The two tournaments now share not only a format, but also a branding and marketing strategy. The idea was to elevate the competition’s stature, but the rebrand seems to have the opposite effect.
None of this, however, is to say that the Europa League is somehow pointless. In fact, the reverse would be closer to the truth. Without an avenue for mid-tier clubs to enter into European competition, the gulf between the continent’s giants and everyone else would only widen. Further, by giving fans of non-title contending teams the chance to welcome storied European clubs is a crucial part of the modern game. Were European competition restricted to, say, England’s Big Six and their continental ilk, increased fan disenchantment would be a natural and predictable by-product.
The Europa League, in this sense, serves to democratise football, even if its offering is patently second rate. But ultimately, the problem for the tournament is that no one would, for a second, claim that the competition is anything other than a watered-down, knock-off, replica of the Europe’s top tier event. Chances are that unless your club is in it, you don’t follow it at all — and why should you?
Second-rate by Design
The Europa League’s problems thus stem not just from the absence of the game’s powerhouse clubs, but also from the fact that whole competition feels like a poor imitation of its vastly more prestigious stablemate. Indeed, the most damning truism that can be said of the tournament is the fact that gaining entry to the Champions League — rather than winning the Cup itself — is the real prize. This stands in stark contrast to other tournaments like the FA Cup, where entry to European competition is a bonus, and not the primary motivation.
Scrap the Europa League and revamp it as a good old-fashioned knockout competition. I've even got a name for it: The UEFA Cup.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) November 6, 2014
Due to the Europa League’s many weaknesses, observers of the game are left with two very different intercontinental products to consume. One is prestigious, exclusive, and compelling. The other is second-rate by design. What this means, in short, is that UEFA is lacking a distinct and appealing alternative to the Champions League — a more inclusive product, but one which which doesn’t, at the same time, feel like an impoverished replica.
The Forgotten Tournament
It is for all these reasons that UEFA should consider a revival of the European Cup Winners’ Cup — a competition that was recognised as Europe’s second-most prestigious before being discontinued in 1999. The CWC was your quintessential knock-out tournament, played by 32 clubs that had won, you guessed it, a knock-out tournament. The Cup declined in stature due to the expansion of the UCL to non-champion clubs in the early 1990s. By the latter years of that decade, it was clear that Europe’s big guns would be increasingly domiciled in the Champions League, leading many to wonder whether the CWC would drift into obscurity.
In hindsight, the axing of the tournament was an unfortunate, albeit understandable, act. The competition’s straight knock-out format assisted in producing a diverse group of winners. In its 39 year history, 32 different clubs, from 12 different countries, lifted the CWC. By contrast, in the 63 year history of the European Cup, only 22 clubs, from 10 countries, have emerged victorious.
What’s more, there is a coterie of British clubs for whom the Cup Winners’ Cup is their only major international honour. Arsenal, Rangers, Everton, West Ham, Manchester City, and Aberdeen have all, at some point, lifted the trophy, but none has managed to go the distance in the UCL. Although UEFA still recognises the CWC as a “major honour”, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that these clubs have lost a part of their heritage. For each club, the CWC victory is arguably its most important achievement; an achievement that can sadly never be replicated.
Reviving the Cup Winners’ Cup?
UEFA can, however, correct this. A revived CWC could be played alongside the UCL provided it took the form of a single elimination knockout tournament comprised of 32 teams. Clubs charged with competing in both tournaments would naturally have decisions to make, but if two-legged ties were introduced only in the latter stages of the tournament (in the quarters and semis), the finalists would be required to play only seven games. Additionally, the cup winners from UEFA’s top 16 associations could be awarded with automatic entry, while the other 39 cup winners could fight for the remaining 16 spots in the early weeks of the season.
There would be small hurdles to overcome in terms of scheduling, but there is space in the season for an additional seven games. Qualified clubs could always forgo their spot in that year’s League Cup, and associations that have only one national cup ought to have to problem finding additional space in the calendar.
If the Cup Winners’ Cup were to be revived, fans would be treated to an additional club tournament that wouldn’t be acting as a hopeless competitor to the Champions League. A revived CWC would be a unique club tournament. It would reward the lifting of domestic silverware while including the continent’s top teams — a balance that UEFA is currently struggling to achieve. For the fans, it means more European football; more intriguing ties; more high stakes matches; and an additional opportunity for clubs to compete for meaningful European honours. Although many rarely give the CWC a second thought, it is something we’re missing.