UEFA Europa League
How best to describe the Europa League? Imagine a bridesmaid at the wedding of her best friend. She is happy for her chum, of course, but deep down there is that nagging sense of frustration. ‘When is it going to be my big day?’ she ponders.
In a roundabout fashion, that sums up the Europa League’s relationship with the Champions League. Those taking part in European football’s bridesmaid event look on enviously as their Champions League counterparts get stuck into the continent’s premier tournament.
The balance has been redressed in a fashion with the rule change that stipulates that the Europa League winner will enter the next season’s Champions League automatically, and while that is great news for one club the rest are left to watch on with a tinge of green as their rivals battle it out for club football’s richest prize.
Europa League Format
Generally, each nation that ranks even remotely highly in UEFA’s coefficient gets three berths in the Europa League, and this descends on a diminishing scale for the likes of San Marino and Liechtenstein, who might get a place if they are lucky! In England, the three Europa League places go to the teams finishing fifth and sixth, as well as the FA Cup winner.
The first action is the competition is the two-legged, knockout matches that make up the qualifying round. This is where the teams ranked low by the UEFA coefficient system have to duke it out prior to even making the tournament proper.
Those that survive, along with the teams that lost in the Champions League qualifiers, are then added to the teams that automatically qualified for the Europa League to make up the 48 entrants.
These are then split into 12 groups of four, with the typical round robin format ensuing, to produce a group winner and runner up from each group, who progress to the knockout stage of the competition. Here, eight teams that finished third in their Champions League group are added to the mix to create a standard 32-team knockout event.
Eventually just two will remain, and these sides will battle it out in the tournament’s finale in May.
Europa League History
The Europa League is, essentially, an amalgamation of the UEFA Cup (a tournament for those finishing just outside the Champions League places in their domestic divisions) and the Cup Winners Cup (as the name suggests).
The origins of this sort of ‘second competition’ in Europe date back to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which ran from 1955 to 1970. This was then replaced by the UEFA Cup in 1971.
Despite its perception as a second-rung event, the Europa League offers actual and financial rewards for a strong showing. Clearly, the lure of a Champions Legaue place is strong, but then the prize money – £500,000 for reaching the knockout phase, £1.6 million for the semi-finals and £6.5 million to the winner – is not to be sniffed at. The culture of treating this competition as an afterthought appears to be changing.
Since the first instalment of the UEFA Cup in the 1971/72 campaign, no team has won more honours in this tournament than five-time winners Sevilla. The fact that they have won the competition for three years consecutively from 2014 to 2016 confirms the added impetus with which many big clubs are treating the competition.
A quarter of teams have appeared in four finals – Juventus, Inter Milan, Liverpool and Borussia Monchengladbach, with the first trio bagging three wins and the Germans two.
English football has been well represented in the UEFA Cup/Europa League over the years, with Wolves and Tottenham contesting the first ever UEFA final back in 1972 (Spurs have lifted this trophy twice in the past and lost in one other final, while Ipswich Town and Chelsea have both triumphed in the past.
With the lure of a Champions League place and the carrot of rather generous prize money, we can expect more and more English teams to take this competition seriously in the near future.