The UEFA Champions League remains club football’s most sought after trophy for a multitude of reasons. Due to its ever growing status in the post-Bosman world of football, not least of which is due to the financial prizes on offer, simply qualifying for the competition is considered more important than winning a domestic cup or even the Europa League. Just ask Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager has gone on record to state “I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they don’t ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League.” Wenger is not in the minority with that viewpoint. Teams like Liverpool and Atletico Madrid face uphill struggles to retain stalwarts such as Luis Suarez and Falcao if they are not able to offer them Champions League football imminently. But what is the role of the Europa League in providing a balance to the dilemma? It is after all UEFA’s “second” big competition.
Gone are the days of the prestige of playing in and winning the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup. Big teams such as Barcelona, Juventus, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Lazio were among the winners of those competitions during their final years before a re-structuring was undertaken by Europe’s governing body. In fact, UEFA has played a central role in the demise of Europe’s second competition through neglecting it whilst the Champion’s League’s grew larger and more influential in world football. Their high-profile public re-branding of the Europa League in 2009 has done little to change the perception or reality of the situation. At the time, UEFA President Michel Platini stated “I am convinced the new format will give the UEFA Europa League a successful new impetus…these changes will improve this historic competition, which is very important for UEFA and for European football as it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football”
Firstly, the fact that less and less “champions” take part in the Champions League has simply depleted the prestige of the Europa League. It has been firmly given a second-tier look and feel, and that sense has never been reversed by the entry of the third-placed group stage “lucky losers” from the Champions League at the latter stages of the Europa League because those sides only see the tournament as a distraction to their quest of winning the league title or qualifying for next season’s Champions League through their domestic league. Secondly, UEFA provided the nail in the tournament’s coffin by confirming its position as a second-tier competition through the meager prize money on offer. For instance, winning a group stage match nets a team €140,000 in the Europa League whilst €800,000 in the Champions League. For a team in the Europa League to get that sort of prize money they would need to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament. On the flip-side, a team that qualifies for the semi-finals of the Champions League gains €4,200,000. The winners of the Champions League and Europa League attain €9 million and €3 million respectively as further bonuses. In short, if a team wins every watch on its way to winning the tournaments, starting from the group stages, they would gain €31.5 million and €6.44 million respectively in the Champions League and Europa League. This is even before the huge impact of television money is taken into account as that further widens the financial gulf between the two competitions.
Nevertheless, UEFA still encourages managers to talk up the Europa League. In October 2012, it was reported that a sheet was distributed to managers of sides in the tournament. The sheet, headlined “Discover the Drama”, included terms such as “prestigious” and “rich in heritage” and highlighted that the dramatic nature of the matches should be talked up during press conferences and interviews. It is a bit hypocritical, not to mention naive, to expect supporters, teams, players, sponsors, and the media to buy into a manufactured and commercial measure. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, UEFA has taken a fruitless approach that has further brought it ridicule as well as further undermined the value of the Europa League. Simply put, it is all talk and little substance. This brings us to the ultimate question. What can UEFA do to salvage the reputation and importance of the competition?
On one hand, increasing the financial winnings that are to be gained by clubs could prove to have a positive impact. If, as expected, “big” clubs, from the big leagues then begin taking the competition a little more seriously, then supporters would do so, as a consequence, especially in terms of TV audiences, and sponsors would begin to pool more money towards the tournament. However, this could prove financially costly for UEFA and it would take a considerable increase in prize money, possibly doubling it at the very least, to have an impact. However, the prize money would still fall quite short of what is on offer in the Champions League. At the same time, it does not fix one of the biggest weaknesses of the competition in that almost all the big clubs are already present in the Champions League. Unlike the past when winning the domestic cup was seen as far more prestigious due to the passage towards the Cup Winner’s Cup, today, it has also taken a back-seat to the domestic league’s passage towards the Champions League. In many cases, the winner of the domestic cup would already be present in the Champions League so the runners-up or next best-placed domestic league position not in European competition qualifies to the Europa League. All lit roads lead to the Champions League, whilst a dead end leads one towards the Europa League. It has firmly become the “black sheep” of European football.
On the other hand, if one takes a closer look at Arsene Wenger’s comments, then a viable solution could be found in raising the profile of the Europa League. It is clear that everyone wants to participate in the Champions League, and the Europa League is little consolation to clubs that miss out on that privilege. But what if the relationship between the two competitions was further intertwined? We already have clubs who drop down from the Champions League to the Europa League mid-competition, so why can’t the reverse journey be possible? The proposal is not as radical as it sounds.
If UEFA begins offering the winner of the Europa League a spot in the following season’s Champions League it would almost certainly solve the problem permanently. It would offer clubs the chance to qualify for the Champions League following what could be as little as a 15-match campaign, less than half the matches it would take through most domestic leagues in Europe. In fact, in a knock-out competition most clubs would have more of a chance for success than a dragged-out 38 match league campaign. English teams like Everton, Liverpool and Spurs would find it more “attractive” competing with some of the sides present in the Europa League than their counterparts such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea for a spot through the league. Teams that get knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage may be suffering in terms of their domestic league as a consequence of their squad being stretched, as Spurs found out a couple of years ago, but re-entry into the Europa League would offer then a few matches to redeem themselves and give themselves a second shot at the Champions League the following season. In fact, one can argue that the winner of the Europa League has more of a claim to taking part in the Champions League than a 4th place side of a domestic league.
Having expanded the Champions League in recent seasons, it is unlikely that UEFA would have practical problems in offering a spot in the Champions League to the winners of its second-tier competition. In fact, to go further in gaining national association support for the idea, the Europa League winner’s “spot” could have special dispensation which does not endanger the final domestic league qualifier to the Champions League due to the fact that the Europa League winner finished outside those spots. So, in theory, England could have 5 spots one season or Italy could regain a 4th spot quicker than they would have expected. The proposal is certainly something that UEFA could look into if it has serious intentions in regaining the lost prestige of the Europa League. Whether it does so or not is a whole different debate. But there are no excuses left for UEFA and the clock is ticking for the Europa League.