“The Europa League, eh? Well, you’re going to struggle next season!”
Unfortunately, European football’s second tier competition has managed to fashion itself a pretty diabolical reputation over the past few years. It’s a status so damaging that qualification for the tournament has become almost bittersweet in the eyes of many.
A fifth, sixth or seventh placed in the domestic table is certainly credible, but a swathe of supporters greet the mandatory European commitments with a shrug of the shoulders and a “do we have to?”, type of attitude.
The participants will be playing European football, of course, which in itself brings a pedigree and a gravitas. But it’ll be European football on a Thursday night, in front of largely empty stadiums and often in some unknown corner of the continent.
In the English game in particular, the competition has had a detrimental effect on domestic form too, with Newcastle United, Swansea and Tottenham crumbling under the pressure of an extra competition and the inevitable additional demands that come with it.
But whilst it is seemingly the “in” thing to pour scorn over the merits of the Europa League, it’s a competition that has many beneficial facets too. And on the cusp of this year’s final between Sevilla and Benfica, it only seems appropriate to bring them up.
The vast majority match going supporters, for one, will be delighted to have European football to look forward to next season.
From the Premier League, Everton qualified for the competition for the first time in four years, whilst Hull will play on the continent for the first time in their history after their march to the FA Cup final.
The teams met each other on the final day of the domestic season and supporters sang in unison “we’re all going on a European tour”, noticeably excited about the campaign ahead and the new adventures it’ll bring.
For them, travelling around the continent to watch their side in action will make for some very special memories, regardless of what happens on the pitch.
Ian Garmston, from the Cottingham branch of the Hull City Official Supporters’ Club is delighted by his team’s qualification, per the Hull Daily Mail, stating, “I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have expected anything like this. It’s one of those things I never dreamed of being able to see”.
There were still some underpinning concerns, though. He continued “it’ll only be be good though if we maintain our position in the Premier League next season”.
So it begs the question: Is an on-pitch, domestic capitulation really an unavoidable side effect of playing in European football? Whilst this is a common view held by many within the game, there’s a myriad of success stories to suggest otherwise. That suggest quite the opposite, in fact.
The most emphatic indicator of how effective the Europa League can be is the recent exploits of Diego Simeone and his marvellous Atletico Madrid team. Under Cholo, Atletico won the competition in 2010 and again in 2012; at the time of writing, they sit atop of La Liga ahead of juggernauts like Barcelona and Real Madrid, not to mention on the brink of their first ever European Cup triumph.
And the Europa League has played a huge part in their development, probably one of the most vital parts. It’s a competition that has not only engrained into Atletico the on-pitch requirements to flourish in European competition, but it’s been a catalyst for the acquirement of a strong, winning mentality.
The Europa League that prepared them to win. To win against different styles and different opponents. To win in different countries and unfamiliar climates. It’s prepared so well that now they’re at a stage where they expect to win, no matter the opposition.
It’s a mentality that is almost infectious and it’s been honed to perfection by Simeone. And this Atletico Madrid team is by no means an isolated case.
Porto won the Europa League back in 2003, paving the way for their Champions League triumph in 2004. And a core of the Liverpool squad that sampled Champions League glory in Istanbul won the Europa League in its previous format—the UEFA Cup—back in 2001.
Compare their European fortunes with a team such as Manchester City—whose financial backing has facilitated a swift ascension to the top table of European football—and it’s clear that obtaining that underpinning experience is vital.
For clubs such as Everton, Tottenham and even the likes of Newcastle and Southampton, all teams looking to break into that elite category, the Europa League can provide ample, appropriate know-how. From next season, the winner of the tournament will be guaranteed a place in the Champions League too, a clear acknowledgement and an encouragement for that kind of progression.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for managers to give young players experience too. Take Everton this season and look at the developments in the game of young players like Ross Barkley and John Stones. The Europa League is a wonderful platform for burgeoning talents to seize their chance and accrue some invaluable knowledge; players of that ilk will develop much more quickly as a result.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance to claim some prestigious silverware. Supporters of Benfica and Sevilla will be gripped by those wonderful emotions that only football can bring ahead of the final. The nerves, the excitement, the feelings that make it all worthwhile. The players have their chance to etch their name into the folklore of their respective clubs.
For supporters of Everton, Tottenham and Hull City who aren’t that excited about their team’s participation in the Europa League next season, I suggest you tune in for the Europa League final and sample the raw emotions that emanate from the winning team at the final whislte and the unashamed elation from the supporters.
Perhaps Thursday nights won’t be so bad after all?
Reminder: For viewers in the United States, the Europa League Final between Benfica vs Sevilla kick off today at 2:45pm ET on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Soccer 2Go