If ever there was a football competition that needed an overhaul, surely it’s the Europa League.
Europe’s secondary club football tournament, formerly the UEFA Cup and also an amalgamation of the old Cup Winners’ Cup, is now in its eight season under its current moniker.
Between the qualifying rounds, groups stages, knockout stages, quarter-finals, semi-finals and eventually a final at the end of the most arduous of journeys, more than 180 teams will have taken part.
The 2016/17 final will take place in Solna, Sweden next May. To say the route is circuitous is the understatement of the season. To eventually reach the final is more of an exercise in endurance rather than a test of a team’s ability, not to mention a massive financial outlay for die-hard fans who need to be well up on their geography.
I fully accept that the competition is a huge attraction for smaller clubs and provides escapism from the monotony of their domestic leagues. Clubs like Irish side Dundalk also badly need the cash windfall that comes with group stage qualification.
There is also the experience of playing teams from other countries and learning different styles to augment a team’s own strengths. And in fairness there are a lot more countries in Europe than 15-20 years ago, hence the increase in participants.
However, where UEFA falls down is by rewarding clubs for failure. With the group stages now in train, there are twelve groups of four vying for the top two positions in each group.
After thousands of air miles are clocked up in European skies over the next few months, 24 teams will win through to the knockout stage.
However, instead of these 24 teams battling it out in the latter rounds for the glory of winning a European trophy, they will be joined by the eight teams who finish third in the group stages of the Champions League.
UEFA can put whatever spin on it they like, but this arrangement is grossly unfair.
Take last season’s Europa League for instance; Manchester United, Sevilla, Valencia, Galatasaray, Bayer Leverkusen, Porto, Olympiacos and Shakhtar Donetsk all finished third in their respective Champions League groups. Instead of exiting the European stage they were parachuted into the Europa League’s last 32 knockout stage.
What was particularly laughable was the fact that Shakhtar Donetsk only picked up three points from 18 in their Champions League group but still managed to get through to the last 32 of the Europa League.
United, then under Louis van Gaal, were also poor in their Champions League group last season, with the conservative Dutchman unable to steer probably England’s most celebrated club past Wolfsburg, PSV Eindhoven and CSKA Moscow.
However, once again, through no fault of their own, United were rewarded for failure. They were sent packing, not home, but to the Europa League. Ignominously, United lost the first leg of their Round of 32 match against Midtjylland 2-1. Eventually they overcame the Danish team after a one-sided second leg at Old Trafford, but subsequently lost out in the last 16 to bitter rivals Liverpool.
The question has to be asked: should United have been there in the first place?
And what about Seville who won the Europa League for the third consecutive year last May? They were also one of the teams who came third in their Champions League group and were rewarded for failure.
Is there not something fundamentally wrong with a team winning a tournament they didn’t even start out in?
This safety net issue goes back some time. In the 1999/00 season, the UEFA Cup final, held in Copenhagen, was contested between Arsenal and Galatasaray. Both teams were ‘gatecrashers’ having come third in their respective Champions League groups that season.
Simply put: there are far too many sides, matches and rounds in the Europa League. It could do with some serious streamlining, although that would result in less matches and TV money.
The best place to begin the overhaul would be to scrap the league format. From the very start of the competition, right through to its inclusion, all matches should be on a knockout basis.
And more importanly, if you come third in your Champions League group, you’re out of European competition altogether for that season. No second chances at glory. No safety net.
It’s only fair that the club that eventually wins the Europa League should be one of the 48 teams in the group stages.
There was a time when it used to be prestigious for, let’s say, a smaller club to qualify for Europe – a reward for their endeavours in their domestic league. However, because of the structure of the Europa League, it seems to have become a burden for some.
When will UEFA finally get the message that it should be quality over quantity and not the other way around? It is an organisation that is obsessed with league formats and extending competitions.
As long as money is at stake, though, it’s hard to envisage the Europa League format changing anytime soon. A long and winding road to Sweden over the next eight months is guaranteed.
If you harbour any ambitions that your team will be contesting the final, you’d better get familiar with Google Maps and make friends with your local bank manager.
Pat O’Rourke, Pundit Arena