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Leagues: Europa Conference League

Underdogs and the greatness of the Europa Conference League

greatness of the Europa Conference League

Bodø/Glimt walked off of Aspmyra Stadium, fervent chanting surrounding them.

Glimt did not just pull off a stunner by beating Italian Giants Roma. The Norwegian side pounded the three-time Serie A champions, 6-1.

Hailing from Bodø, which has a population of less than 50,000, is the shining example of the greatness of the Europa Conference League. Like Porto winning the Champions League or Leicester winning the Premier League, it gives the smaller team hope.

Now, Glimt continues one of the deepest runs in the club’s history. The 50,000 Norwegians supporting the side join millions cheering on the underdog as it faces Roma yet again. This time, it comes in the quarterfinals of the Europa Conference League.

This potential for smaller clubs is not something felt just by Bodø/Glimt and its supporters. Numerous clubs on the outside looking in on the European soccer scene have an unfound possibility. Austrian side LASK, Dutch side Vitesse and Danish side Randers all had significant games against large clubs throughout Europe. While Europe’s elite feel these emotions every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, this is a unique sentiment for the minnows of Europe.

Some would flail in the Champions League or the Europa League. Yet, the Europa Conference League gives small clubs opportunities to restructure their sides while facing unfamiliar foes.

Outside of the big names like Leicester City, Roma, and Marseille, small clubs find a way to thrive and make a name for themselves.

Big names thrive, small clubs have chance to survive

Certain clubs add major hardware to their trophy cabinets with relative ease. The world-class Galacticos of Real Madrid have 13 UEFA Champions League titles. Or, domestically, Manchester United rattled off eight Premier League titles in the first 11 years after England’s top flight became the English Premier League. Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and other major clubs boast the best players in the world. Major European competitions are an expectation, not a treaure.

In their shadows, mid-table clubs and even relegation candidates quietly suffer. There are numerous disadvantages to being a smaller side in terms of success and popularity. For example, reduced TV coverage weakens profits and clubs with deeper pockets poach the best players. The exclusivity of the Champions League or even the Europa League does little benefit to these sides.

Take Bodø/Glimt. The team embodies mediocrity in Europe, going 20-8-15 in European competition. Their weaker roster could never gain a solid foothold on the European stage.

This season was no different. Legia Warsaw demolished Glimt in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, 5-2 over two legs. Subsequently, Blimt entered the Europa Conference League. The Norwegian side escaped unharmed in UECL qualification. Now, the club is in the quarterfinals of the competition against teams from Italy, England, France, the Netherlands and more.

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Several other clubs have stories similar to Bodø/Glimt throughout the UECL’s extremely brief history. The greatness of the Europa Conference League comes from a mix of grassroots activities and avant-garde approaches to small clubs. Despite the draw of more profits the more established European sides, the UECL caters to a new category of the sport.

The greatness of the Europa Conference League and the smaller teams

Local clubs, or even the perennial mid-table sides, never had a chance to excel in European competitions. The arrival of the Europa Conference League lets small clubs get some of the pleasures of European competition that the elite clubs get each year.

It starts with how UEFA allocates qualifying spots. Europe’s greatest leagues only receive one slot in the Europa Conference League. Meanwhile, some of the leagues from less-prominent soccer countries, such as Poland, Bulgaria or Wales have three teams enter throughout the different stages of the competition. Essentially, there is just as much opportunity for a club from Malta to lift the first Conference League trophy as Tottenham, which was in the Champions League Final just three years ago.

Also, FIFA and UEFA provided vital funds to teams regardless of early exits from the competition. Despite Sammarinese side La Fiorita’s loss in the first qualifying round, they were still given about 150,000 euros, or $164,000.

So far, the scene is drastically different than its more prestigious counterparts. Whereas the usual culprits dominate the Champions League and Europa League, the UECL offers a more diverse array of teams.

The success stories

Among those teams vying for the Europa Conference League is PSV Eindhoven out of the Eredivisie. For a team whose heydays came in the era of the European Cup, a quarterfinals appearance in the Europa Conference League will be hugely celebrated. Their match against Leicester City will be highly anticipated in their native city of Eindhoven. The Rood-Witten have just a 36% win percentage in the Champions League. That figure rose to 50% in the Europa League, so the number will likely rise in the Europa Conference League.

It is likely that with the Conference League, PSV can fill out its trophy case with new silverware every so often. It fits the profile of a UECL contender. PSV is a team with a storied history. The squad is competitive domestically but easily outclassed in Europe.

PSV’s opponent, Leicester City, also fits the mold of a UECL contender. After a magical season where they won the Premier League, Leicester fizzled out in Europe. Last season, Leicester finished first in its group in the Europa League, but it narrowly lost at the hands of Slavia Prague. Throughout the competition, you can find the teams like PSV and Leicester. The UECL does not just give a launchpad to small clubs; it helps rebuild legendary clubs.

Favorites to win it all

The team to beat in the quarterfinals is either PSV, Roma, or Marseille. PSV, which advanced to the finals of the KNVB Cup to face Ajax, is quietly dominant in the Eredivisie. The Red and White boast an unbeaten streak stretching from early February. Now, the side is just two points adrift of first-place Ajax. Domestic success suggests it could push around teams in the group stage of any European competition.

Under the leadership of Jose Mourinho and a remarkably efficient Tammy Abraham, Roma is fifth in Serie A. Although no longer active in the Coppa Italia and unlikely to lift the Serie A’s highly-coveted trophy, Roma has a chance at winning a title this season in the UECL. The explosive offense will face a familar Bodø/Glimt side. Undoubtedly, Mourinho wants to exact revenge against the side that slid eight past Roma in two group stage games.

Unlike the above two, Marseille has a standard enough draw. If they beat their quarterfinals opponents, PAOK, they will play either Feyenoord or Slavia Prague in the semifinals. It will be a breeze for a team jostling for second in Ligue 1. Plus, Marseille is in the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France. A deadly duo of Dmitri Payet and Arkadiusz Milik will terrorize the rest of the Europa Conference League field.

Never count out the underdogs

As stated previously, the greatness of the Europa Conference Leagues comes from the doors opened to smaller sides.

A new viewer wanting to see the effects the UECL has on how UEFA treats small clubs can look at Bodø/Glimt and PAOK. The two are both in the quarterfinals of the Europa Conference League, and both have less-than-storied careers in Europe.

PAOK has three Greek Super League titles and lifted the Greek Cup eight times. For all its titles domestically, it struggles in the Champions League and has similar lackluster efforts in the Europa League. Yet, it is having a pretty good time in the Europa Conference League. After beating two clubs to advance to the group stage, PAOK finished second in its group. Then, a tense penalty shootout against Midtjylland and some brilliant play against Gent punched the club’s ticket to the quarterfinals. Now, PAOK is closer to a European trophy than ever before.

The same is true of Bodø/Glimt. The Norwegian side’s heydays came in the late 1990s. Glimt often found success when qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but it could not make its way into the later stages of the competition. Over a decade of inactivity in Europe, Glimt came back roaring. The Norwegian side nearly denied Milan a Europa League bid but fell a goal short. This year, after a failed Champions League qualification, Glimt clearly punches above its weight in the UECL.

Qualifying went smoothly. Then, in the group stage, Glimt made headlines worldwide with that 6-1 rout over Roma. A comfortable win over Celtic and a tight victory over AZ means that they have a rematch with their old foes, Roma. The Glimt-Roma match will be must-watch TV.

Photo credit: Photo by Pierre Albouy – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

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