At the start of next season, two of the biggest powerhouses in Europe will be missing from continental soccer altogether. Manchester United and AC Milan tried to qualify for the UEFA Europa League, but both fell short in the final matches of their respective league campaigns.
In numerous sports, wild cards can be awarded to players/teams failing to qualify through normal means, usually at the discretion of the governing body. It is definitely in UEFA’s interests to ensure as many ‘big clubs’ as possible are competing in a competition that rarely garners the attention it deserves.
Currently, UEFA grants the top three associations of the UEFA Respect Fair Play ranking an additional berth each. The system is inherently flawed, as the ‘fairest’ teams are not always rewarded. For example, Fulham was only fourth in the fair play table when they gained entry in 2011-12, as the three teams above them have already qualified for European competition.
A ‘fair’ club would also be overlooked if the league they play in is not among the ‘fairest’ in Europe. It’s no surprise that teams that have qualified through this path have rarely been competitive in the Europa League.
Giving cup winners (or runners up) a spot in Europe is a good way of rewarding a cup run, but this comes at the expense of teams finishing well in the league – depending on the cup winners, teams finishing 6th in Europe’s top leagues can still miss out on the Europa League. If UEFA can award the three Fair Play berths to clubs with deserving positions in the league table instead, it would certainly add to the quality of the tournament.
Wouldn’t this be unfair to those already qualified for the competition through conventional means? Not exactly – wild card teams should start their campaign from the first qualifying round, just like those currently qualifying through the Fair Play rankings. In this way, the wild cards would have to go through 23 matches in order to lift the trophy – no one could accuse a team of being undeserving after managing that.
If Manchester United were to gain a berth in the first qualifying round of next season’s Europa League (see suggested wild card entrants below), that would generate considerable buzz for the competition before the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup have even started. Even if Manchester United are to be eliminated in the Round of 16 just like two seasons ago, that would still represent nine extra home games for the season.
It is not hard to conceive an average attendance reaching about 65,000, which would represent a hefty amount of revenue even for a club of this stature. ITV, on the other hand, would be more than happy to have 18 live games involving what remains the most-watched soccer club in Britain.
Nevertheless, there are potential embarrassments for UEFA if a club offered a wild card berth refuses to enter the Europa League. Therefore, wild cards should only be awarded to clubs that have applied for a place. Those are clubs with the willingness and squad depth to go through the extra midweek games. UEFA can then cherry pick teams based on their league position, ‘big name’ factors and so on. This would be immensely beneficial to the Europa League, the clubs and the broadcasters. It is just a surprise that UEFA has not already gone with it.