Given the amount of European teams still involved in World Cup action, it is reasonable that your attention is still focused on Russia, and the tournament going on there.
Yet Europe’s 2018/19 season is already kicking into gear, and while the preliminary rounds of the Europa League might appear to be a minefield of the unknown, it can be a make or break part of the season already. In short, it might not create huge waves, but to those involved, it matters.
The Preliminary Round
We are midway through the Preliminary Round, which involves teams from UEFA’s lowliest leagues; San Marino, Gibraltar, Andorra and the Faeroe Islands, as well as Wales. It would be wrong to dismiss these teams as no-hopers, but it seems highly unlikely that any will reach the Group Stage of the competition. Even here, there are upsets. Wales’ Bala Town went into the home leg of their tie with San Marino’s 3rd placed side confident but finished on the side of the 3-0 hammering. They are unlikely to progress.
Should they overturn that deficit, and reach a tie played on the the 12th and 19th July; they will be in a round with some huge names. Those match-ups are drawn already, so Tre Fiori know they are playing for a tie against Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. Rudar might not be a big name, but that round has no shortage of them. If we stay in the UK, Glasgow Rangers have UEFA Cup Winners Cup winning pedigree of their own, and will be managed by Champions League winner Steven Gerrard for their tie against European debutants Shkupi of Macedonia.
Northern Ireland’s Glenavon have made a fourth Europa League qualifying campaign in a row, and they will struggle to break their duck against a Molde side managed by another Champions League winner in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In Luxembourg, Racing FC, as reward for winning their domestic cup, will face Gheorghe Hagi’s Viitorul Constanta. In their third European campaign since their formation just nine years ago, the legendary Romanian who both owns and manages the side is yet to see his team into a main draw. He will hope for better this time around – not least as his son Ianis captains the side.
Dugouts are one thing, but that round has some celebrated players on the field, as well. Danijel Pranjic is currently turning out for Anorthosis Famagusta, who have some recent pedigree of their own. He can count amongst his team-mates Michal Duris, a veteran of Slovakian campaigns of recent years. Add in the historically storied European giants – Ferencvaros, Partizan (Belgrade), Maccabi Tel Aviv, even Copenhagen (whose captain William Kvist retired from international football after Denmark’s elimination from the World Cup) and the first qualifying round has an appeal all of its own, despite some of the unfamiliar names.
If you prefer a little more obscurity, Connah’s Quay are managed by former Manchester City defender Andy Morrison, Slovenian legend Zlatko Zahovic’s son Luka is a striker for Maribor, and FC Lahti boast an Afghanistani midfielder in Fareed Sadat.
The Champions’ Path
That’s only really the start of the story, however. The Second Qualifying round begins a week later on 26th July. By that point, the Champions’ Path comes alive. All those teams who are eliminated from the Champions League come into the picture at that stage to meet the three smallest champions – those from San Marino, Gibraltar and Andorra. At this stage, some massive sides could drop in to the Europa League preliminaries.
Celtic and Red Star Belgrade are amongst that number – both former European Cup winners in their time, while Malmo were runners-up in the late 1970s and Legia Warsaw previous semi-finalists.
There is an argument that the Champions League is becoming something of a closed shop for those clubs who come from lesser nations, and it is true that the Europa League is accommodating more and more ‘big’ sides from ‘small’ countries, while the Champions League opens its door to lesser sides from ‘bigger’ countries; England’s fourth placed side will likely reach the group stage, Scotland’s first placed side may well not.
That said, recently, we’ve seen the Champions League group stage welcome sides like Ludogorets Razgrad, APOEL, and Qarabag, whose manager Gurban Gurbanov has been in charge for ten years now; all will enter the competition at that playoff stage looking to avoid dropping into the Europa League.
There are twofold reasons for that. Firstly, the Champions League is where the big money is. For a club to qualify for the group stages, especially one from a smaller league, is to enjoy a cash injection that is almost impossible to come by any other way.
The second reason is the quality of teams awaiting them in the Europa League. Already it is a more challenging competition in terms of longevity, but to see those teams that await them in the final qualifying round before the group stages – it can mean an end to the European adventure before it has even really begun.
Legends are allowed to disappear
So what does all of this mean?
It means that while the World Cup is going on, UEFA is trying to sift through the teams who did well in their domestic game last season, hoping that the best ones are able to give a decent account of themselves in the Europa League this time around. Some big names will be involved; some will qualify, some will fall. Some unknown names will be involved, some will fail, some will qualify. There is a pureness to the ties at this stage; seldom is there any pre-ordained narrative as comes later on, as (for example) clubs from Moldova and Macedonia have little shared history.
At the risk of being self-indulgent, and because you’ve got all this way without anything remotely World Cup-related, allow me to relay a story, tangentially related to this because when I was a child I wrote to Connah’s Quay Nomads (playing Belarussian side Shakhtyor Soligorsk in the First Qualifying Round).
I was writing to a lot of football clubs at the time, but the Nomads sent me back a lovely letter, telling me a bit about the club, and enclosed a programme, a team sheet and some other bits and bobs. I vowed, one day, to see them play, and I have.
Around the same time, Sir Bobby Robson was managing at Barcelona. I wrote to him there, after hearing that one of my childhood heroes, Jairzinho, was responsible for unearthing their striker Ronaldo, and wondering if the young Brazilian might know where that legend of the 1970 campaign was, as he’d rather dropped off the radar at that stage. Bobby Robson, of course, had guided England to the World Cup Semi Final in 1990, and Ronaldo was World Player of the Year. I expected nothing, as frequently was the case when I wrote to big clubs.
A few weeks after my letter was sent, I received an air mail envelope from Spain, and could barely believe what it contained. There was a hand-written note in there from Sir Bobby, telling me how much he’d enjoyed Jairzinho’s play, too, and that he’d spoken to Ronaldo but he didn’t know where the veteran winger had gone. It was a shame, wrote the former England manager, that such legends are allowed to disappear.
Sir Bobby’s star really took flight with a UEFA Cup win with Ipswich Town in 1981, just as Ronaldo took a leap on to the global stage with his exploits with PSV in 1996. These early stages might not seem to be the most glamorous games of the season, but everything starts somewhere, and in all of these ties, there are dreams of bigger, and better things.
The Europa League is under way, and I love it.
Editorial credit: Vlad1988 / Shutterstock.com