As the black sheep of the European Football family, the Europa League has been treated to more cold shoulders than a boob tube convention in December. But it wasn’t always this way. In a doomed re-branding exercise the erstwhile UEFA Cup has become a bloated, convoluted, energy sapping chore of a competition that only retains the interest of those teams for whom European football is a novelty. But we should all still cherish it.
Today Fulham were the latest English team to enter the competition, via the Fair Play League, a tenuous and not altogether transparent qualification process that brings with it the unexpected and increasingly unwelcome prospect of a season that starts in June.
The problems with the Europa League are three fold:
1) The bloated, convoluted element referred to above,
2) the kicking it gets from the media and other commentators, and
3) the valorisation of the Champions League, as well as the riches on offer from it, to the point that it now seems like the only show in town.
It was not that long ago that a biscuit baron bought West Ham, illegitimately signed some genuinely good players, and spoke of bringing Champions League football to the Boleyn (How did that go then?). By opening the door to the Champions League wide enough to let 4 fattened footballing geese to squeeze through, suddenly everyone starts believing in going from A to C, whilst bypassing B altogether. And thus the Europa League found itself as B, like that small town that finds itself bypassed by a motorway and is only ever visited by those too tired, hungry, or lost to travel on by. And so along with the once proud competition, a philosophy of sustainable growth and having realistic ambitions were deemed surplus to the requirements of glory. In the media love-in for the Champions League that followed, thousands of football fans were effectively disregarded, condescended into believing that European football was not always, in fact, something to cheer about. Their footballing dreams were relegated by ridicule, afraid now to speak their name.
Whilst the stigma of Europa League football has been well documented, the nay-sayers have had their voices heard far too loudly. As a football fan I believe that many, like me, think the Europa League is a fundamentally flawed tournament, but cringe when they hear their club’s players or manager say that to be in it would be “an inconvenience”, or something that they would rather do without. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has probably been the most guilty of this in recent weeks, and whilst he has been more vocal than most, I suspect he is not alone amongst managers in feeling this way. Recently Fulham’s Brede Hangeland made some innocuous comments about needing rest and how early entry into the Europa League via the fair play placings would be far from ideal. Even this tactful admission made me, a Fulham fan, wince with disappointment. Surely the Norwegian is aware that it is perfectly possible for the club to take part, for him to have his rest, the club to top up its coffers, and the fans to have a good time?
Put simply, the Europa League, Carling Cup or any trophy you care to mention, ought not be an “inconvenience” for any professional football club. That is a lazy excuse and a shirking of one’s responsibilities as a player or as a manager. If your club’s manager suggests qualification for any tournament is unwanted, ask yourself who he’s putting first. It wouldn’t wash in any other industry (“I don’t care how good for business it would be if I went, or how good a networking opportunity it is. I’m tired!”). Step up to the challenge and realise it was a privilege to be asked to attend.
No-one is calling for clubs to play full strength sides all the way through, but with a squad of 25+ pros available, and fans who give more to the club than most of the players ever will, to make flippant pronouncements about playing some games of football radically misses the point and smacks of contempt for the fans. Fulham are a good albeit convenient and not altogether typical example of what second tier European football can bring. Would Harry Redknapp really prefer a year out of European football rather than experience a run to the final of the Europa like the Cottagers last year? You know what, maybe he would, and we should feel sorry for him as he must have lost his passion for the game. But you can be damn sure the fans wouldn’t. Incidentally Fulham’s run brought them £12million in revenue, but don’t let that get in the way of what is an unashamedly romantic argument.
Even the so called big guns of Liverpool and Manchester City deigned to play Europa League football this season with good grace. Neither can be said to have been adversely effected by the experience, and the fans, I’m sure, enjoyed the experience (although for the rest of us, it did inflict “The Poznan” on England). The biggest threat to the credibility of the Europa League isn’t to be found in the make up of the tournament itself, rather it is in the self perpetuating hum of scorn emanating from the media and certain managers and players alike. These voices have a unique position when it comes to setting the agenda of the chatter amongst football fans. The reality is that this tone of commentary is harmful to the game, harmful to any trophy that isn’t the Premier League or Champions League, and offensive to the vast majority of hard working football fans who can speak for themselves, but who in debates over the relevance or otherwise of the Europa League, too often go unheard.
UEFA aren’t blameless and the competition needs an overhaul, but in the meantime, why not respect a trophy rich in history, why not realise that a squad can be rotated, and most important of all, why not realise that it ought to be the goal of every self respecting football club to put silverware in the trophy cabinet and offer a bank of memorable experiences to the loyal fans who just want something to cheer about. I might be alone amongst fans in feeling this way. But I doubt it.