How to Save the Europa League


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In the end, what killed the Cup Winners’ Cup was that common culprit: just a little too much of a good thing. For three decades, Europe’s three major club competitions dovetailed perfectly. Each had its night: the UEFA Cup on Tuesday, the European Cup on Wednesday, the Cup Winners’ Cup on Thursday.

And each had its role. The European Cup was the pinnacle, the tournament where the continent’s best came face-to-face. If anything, the UEFA Cup was the greater slog: home to the up-and-comers, the next big things, the proving ground for greatness. The Cup Winners’ Cup, though, was where the fun was.

What defined the Cup Winners’ Cup, more than anything, was its sheer randomness. Unlike its peers, it was not a reward for consistent excellence over the course of the previous season. It was not populated by Europe’s traditional powers. It did not lend itself to the establishment of dynasties.

Instead — because you had to win a domestic cup to get in it, and domestic cups have long been little more than an afterthought in most countries — its ranks were swelled, to some extent, by the unexpected or the overachieving or the downright lucky. Its contenders changed almost every year. And because there was only one entrant per nation, and because it was played in a straight knockout format, it was small enough and short enough that quality did not always tell.

And so it became the competition in which Alex Ferguson and Ronaldo and Marco van Basten forged their early reputations, announcing their talents to the world. But it was also the competition in which Dinamo Tbilisi once faced Carl Zeiss Jena, of East Germany, in a final held in front of fewer than 10,000 people.

A cursory glance at accounts of its demise suggests that a quite unfair proportion of the blame was laid at the door of S.C. Heerenveen, an otherwise unassuming Dutch club that has essentially been found guilty in absentia of delivering the fatal blow.

Heerenveen entered the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998 on the grounds that it had reached the semifinals of the Dutch Cup the year before, and the two finalists, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, had already qualified for the Champions League.

The team’s performance was hardly laughable — it reached the second round, and lost narrowly there to the Croatian side Varteks — but its presence seemed to undermine the very point of the competition. A tournament for cup winners is one thing. A tournament for cup semifinalists is quite another.

As more and more of Europe’s best teams entered the Champions League or the UEFA Cup, it was decided that the field in the Cup Winners’ Cup had become too weak. Too many of its entrants were not just unexpected, they were unworthy. UEFA decreed that it would be discontinued; the 1998-99 tournament would be its last edition, and Lazio would be its final champion.

Ultimately, the event had lost its meaning. It had become just too random, and European soccer — in the era of the Champions League — has come to loathe randomness. What people want, it has convinced itself, is the mundanity of excellence: the very best teams in Europe, no more than a dozen or so of them, facing one another in various combinations every spring, home and away, just to minimize the risk that the best team might not win.

That is where the glamour is. That is where the appeal is. And that, most crucially, is where the money is. Every development in European soccer over the last 20 years has been made with that single aim in mind: to ensure that the very best teams play each other as often as possible and that they do not have to waste time playing no-marks and minnows.

Variety has been decreed the enemy, and we have been conditioned to accept that as an incontrovertible truth: that sport is about finding out who is best, rather than just seeing who wins. The fact that this is in the interests of the big clubs, the established powers, is — of course — completely coincidental.

It was not a surprise, then, that UEFA was clear that this year’s Continental tournaments — designed to ensure that both the Champions League (for men and women) and Europa League can be played to a conclusion despite the pandemic, and planned with military precision — would be one-off affairs.

No matter how appealing the idea of a condensed, World Cup-style competition might be, European soccer’s governing body did not want anyone to think this was the way forward. Making the quarterfinals and semifinals just one game — rather than two legs — would effectively be sacrificing some of the most valuable television real estate in sport. It would mean clubs would lose two lucrative match days. It was a no go. The Champions League works perfectly fine just as it (normally) is, thank you very much.

That is broadly true, of the Champions League, at least. But it is not true at all of the Europa League, now teetering on the brink of irrelevance, just as the Cup Winners’ Cup was two decades ago. The value of the Europa League’s television rights pale in comparison to those on offer in the Champions League. Its prestige has waned. It sits as somewhere between a consolation and a burden.

And now UEFA might just have happened upon a way to reinvigorate it. Certainly, watching last week’s quarterfinals — Inter Milan’s breathless 2-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester United’s tense and taut progression against Copenhagen, Sevilla’s last-gasp victory against Wolves, and Shakhtar Donestk’s brutal destruction of Basel — it felt as if this format ought to be the future of the Europa League.

It works because it solves all of the problems that have plagued the tournament for years. By cutting the number of games, it makes the tournament less of a grind. By condensing it into a week or so and holding it on neutral turf, it makes it an event. By staging it at the end of the season, it creates breathing room earlier in the campaign. By giving it an identity beyond its current one as a shadow version of the Champions League, it becomes more marketable as a product and more valuable as television content.

But it works, too, because it brings a degree of randomness back to European competition. Home and away ties reduce the chance of upsets; they are designed so that quality wins out, and the role of fortune is mitigated. One-and-done matches would do the opposite, ramping up the jeopardy, the tension. It would accentuate the role of luck.

It would make the Europa League a spectacle in and of itself, something different and bespoke and unique, not just a watered-down version of the Champions League. Most of all, it might make it fun: the one thing that, in European soccer’s tradition, Thursday nights always used to offer.

In other words, if you can — or should — ignore both the source and the purpose of Leipzig’s success, you will see that this is how clubs should be run, particularly those harboring ambitions of overhauling the old elite. The only problem with that sentence, of course, is that “if” is doing an awful lot of heavy lifting.

There is even an outside hope that it might be finished in time for the stadium to be fit to host Champions League games next season; in this one, Atalanta had to play its home games in Milan. That is something that means a lot to people in Bergamo, the idea that Europe’s biggest club competition might not just be something they can reach, but something that comes to them. Lisbon was not the end of Atalanta’s story.

A valid question from a reader by the name of Arturo about David Silva, the subject of last week’s newsletter. “Did he speak more to Spanish-speaking press or publications over the years?” The best answer is probably “marginally.” My Spanish is imperfect but passable, and it helped in his early days, when he might stop occasionally to chat after a game. (No player stops often to chat in European soccer.) Every so often he spoke to a Spanish outlet while away on international duty, too, but it wasn’t a frequent thing.

A pertinent observation from Carl Lennertz, who spent Saturday night watching Barcelona beat Napoli and then the Yankees face Tampa Bay in what, as a British person, I am going to call “the baseball.” “I was reminded again of the order of home team against visitor in the scoreline,” he wrote. “The world is home team first, the United States the home team second.”

Like me, Carl wonders if there is something “charming” in the American order — as though the home team is graciously welcoming its visitor — but cannot quite answer the question as to why, precisely, America has decided to go its own way on this.

And a special mention to Marlon Griffing, who sent a long email on the subject of whether there is too much baseball. In short, he thinks there isn’t, because no other sport “faces the fact that perhaps the most important position for a team cannot be filled by the same performer game after game,” he wrote, disregarding Harry Maguire. “For the element of luck in who wins a regular-season pennant to be minimized, a larger number of games must be played.”

That makes sense. But say baseball worked like soccer: 30 teams, each playing each other once, home and away. That’s still 58 games. Would that not also reduce the strain on the pitchers, and would that not also be kind of a good thing?

That’s all for this week. If you’d like me to suggest ways to improve other sports that I don’t know very much about, please send the name of the sport and the aspect of it that you find disappointing to [email protected]


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