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3 Problems With The Europa League: A Fulham Fan’s Perspective

Photo by nicksarebi

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.

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  1. Ricardo

    May 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    As a FC Porto fan, i am extremely happy to win the Europa League. Its a great way to win european experience. For a team like Spurs, who clearly lacks the european experience (in my opinion), its a great oportunity to show how good they are. If you cant win the Europa League, you wont win the Champions League for sure. To win it they would need a lot of mid-level teams and experience diferent styles.
    By the way Porto will play the champions league next year but last year at. Madrid only qualified for the Europa League due to the win. They didnt qualify due to standings.

  2. Kile

    May 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    The Europa League is a good tournament for the midtable teams to be in as it gives them a trophy to shoot for given they will never win the title or come close to getting into the top 4. These teams can afford to sacrifice a game or two in the domestic league and gain experience and have their supporters enjoy European nights.

    Most of the upper echelon teams don’t take the Europa League very seriously and don’t approach it like they do the Champions League.

    I agree with an earlier post that the best way to give the Europa League some much-needed importance is to give the winners an automatic spot into the Champions League group stage and the runner-up a spot in the qualifying round. If a team that has won the Europa League qualifies for the Champions League by virtue of their domestic league position then the runner-up should be awarded that spot. In this way more teams will take the tournament more seriously and itcould make for a bigger following. Right now the Europa League doesn’t even come close to being as popular to follow as the FA Cup, Copa del Ray, Copa Italia, etc. UEFA needs to change it.

  3. tom

    May 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I am a Fulham fan who went to all the home legs (qualifiers included) and 5 away legs of our last ‘european adventure’ and as such I can tell you I am incredibly happy we are back in europe. Guess what? I’ve seen Fulham play all the big English teams…. 10 years in a row. I love the premier league but given the chance to play something so different and at such a high level I can’t understand why anyone would resist. Its a matter of setting targets, do you accept that a team like Fulham shouldn’t be in europe as this is the sole preserve of the current top four teams (a dynamic group but one we have little realistic hope of ever being a part of) or do we go for it, enjoy ourselves and put the prem on the back burner for a while. We finished 7th two years ago, 12th last year and 8th this year. Given that the season we finished 12th saw us go on a 19 game european run and the two seasons either side of we finished comfortably in the top 10 I think its pretty bloody pessimistic to assume if we go hell for leather in europe that we will enter into a relegation battle. Especially as we had such a tough run throughout the competition (holders Shaktar, Roma in the group, Juventus, the at the time German champions Wolfsburg, Hamburg as well as a very talented Atletico) which seeing as we will be appropriately seeded this time around is unlikely to be replicated.
    European football isn’t just for those who support the established clubs, its an absolute joy for the fans and I just thank god my team didn’t treat the tournament the way that O’neil did at Villa. I can’t think of anything more depressing for a football fan than having your manager put a ceiling on your club’s ambitions of fifth place in the league with no cup runs. It simply takes all the joy out of football, because lets face it no-ones going to cry with joy about finishing fifth.
    For all the nay-sayers – what do you want? what is a succesful season for Fulham? If we dont try to win this then what is there? A hard fought battle with everton for 7th place? If you think the Europa League means nothing then what does 7th place in a 20 team league mean?!? And if you think that you will somehow win the respect of the big clubs by belittling a competition you can succeed in you are both deluded and helping them maintain their status’ as the only teams who deserve a chance in european football.
    Rant over.

    • Jon Sharp

      May 27, 2011 at 8:13 pm

      Fantastic post Tom. Completely agree with your sentiments. As a Bluenose I was delighted our team actually won something this season because as you so rightly point out, “what else is there?” A yoyo club like Blues is never going to win the League. Winning the league cup will most likely be the high point of my entire life as a Birmingham City supporter. As a neutral I was excited to follow Fulham’s adventures in Europe last season. Birmingham are really going to struggle in Europe unfortunately given our relegation and inevitable loss of players/money, but Fulham have more quality and more depth and should absolutely go for it this year. The best of luck to you and your team!

    • Rob

      May 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      I’m an American who attended the home leg of the match against Wolfsburg 2 seasons ago and I must say that atmosphere rivaled any that I had ever seen in any sporting even i’ve ever been to and that includes the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh this past season. Not much you can do about the way the media covers the Europa League, in fairness it is a second tier tournament, but try telling that to fans of teams involved. Fulham’s chances of being in the Champions League are closed to nil so why not enjoy any opportunity to play in Europe

  4. Matt T.

    May 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I think it should go back to a knockout tournament with the winner qualifying for the Champions League.

  5. Lyle

    May 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Funny article Sean! I’m a Fulham fan myself and love that Fulham will be trying to climb up that hill of tournament once again, even if it comes through fair play rule.

    My only complaint is that you fail to point out that the Premier League is the real reason the Europe League gets short shrift by clubs and media in England. The Premier League is the end all be all and the Europa League has to always play second fiddle to it, because it just doesn’t matter really if Fulham or any English team are in it, if they’re not in the Premier League or if a big club like Liverpool isn’t in the Champions League thanks to a top 4 finish.

    I actually think the media have started to enjoy the Europa League a little bit, especially after Fulham’s run last year. Best game of the season was Fulham v. Juventus according to Harry Redknapp himself.

  6. Danny

    May 26, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    I thought Manchester City got automatic Champions League qualification this year…..

    • @sk_roberts

      May 27, 2011 at 3:40 am

      Re Manchester City, I was referring to the season just finished…


  7. Ivan

    May 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Adidas should stop forcing the Jabulani abomination on the Europa League; worst ball in human history…starting to sound like Cato the Elder, but God, this ball is an abomination. They are still forcing it on MLS…ughhh…

    • oh yeah

      May 27, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      The Bundesliga doesn’t seem to be suffering because of the “worst ball in human history”.

      Perhaps you have no clue what you are talking about.

  8. Jon Sharp

    May 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you Sean for penning this interesting perspective.

  9. Dan

    May 26, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. I didn’t see why they had to re-brand the UEFA cup in the first place. I defy you to find a Newcastle fan who was not enthralled with our last adventure or who was not completely gutted when we lost to Alkmaar. It provides the top of the table with something to play for and I hope Fulham will make a good go of it, was secretly sad to see them lose the final last time. I’m sure every fan of a club that does not regularly grab CL places would like to see their team play the likes of Juventus, Porto, Feyenoord etc. On the other hand, you have to sympathize with a Birmingham side who have to play it from the Championship.

  10. Keith

    May 26, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    it could be a simple fix.
    big money for top 16, 8, 4, and 2
    top 8 europa make it to champions league qualifing the next year.

    problem solved. now everyone has a reason to play, make the final 8, once you’re in the final 8 might as well go for more money by advancing and winning.

  11. BDMCTX

    May 26, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I think that as long as its the same 4 or 5 teams that qualify for the Champions League year after, the Europa League will feel like the kid who doesn’t have a chance at getting the pretty girl and thus should be happy he has anyone at all. Please, please put a salary cap on the Premier League.

  12. jonathan

    May 26, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    It’s strange. Clubs that can make it to champions league need the money to pay the wages of the players that got them there. One year out can wreck havoc on finances. Europa league isn’t a consolation prize. It’s a bonus for teams who have more respectable financial outlooks. As a fulham fan, I don’t see that as something to be ashamed of.

  13. Mekias

    May 26, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    They should give the champs an automatic group stage qualification to the Champions League the following year. They certainly qualify as “champions”. Maybe even give the runners up a chance to qualify for the Champions League. For teams like Fullham who have almost zero chance of being in the Champions League via the Premier League, they would see the finals of the Europa as a light at the end of the long, long, long tunnel.

  14. Russ Goldman

    May 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Sean, this was a very well done article. You make many solid points. I am a Fulham fans that is thrilled we are back in a tournament we almost won. I would like silverware and I think many fans feel that same way as well.

    It might have its flaws, but it gives clubs like Fulham a chance to play in Europe.

  15. Joey

    May 26, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    This years champs Porto are actually a really really good team that actually are among the teams next year if they keep all their players to win the champions league. They did it once under mourinho.

    • Joey

      May 26, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      *a chance to win it

    • Ben

      May 28, 2011 at 11:50 am

      Indeed Porto is an outstanding team.

      Back to the topic, to me the Europa League is a lot more interesting than the Champions League from a fan perspective, in the champions league it is always the same teams every year, kind of boring, in the Europa League, you always have surprise, look at the amazing run of Braga from Portugal and Lech Poznan from Poland this year.

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