The Other Cup
How do you solve a problem like the Europa League?
As an aesthetic proposition, the Europa League has three major problems, which can be concisely enumerated as follows.
1. Lack of semantic clarity leading to fatal confusion over why it even exists
All football competitions have names. Frequently those names are relied upon to convey information. Quite often the information so conveyed sheds light upon the competition's distinguishing characteristic — its 'reason for being', so to speak. The Charity Shield, for instance, was devised to benefit charity. The Cup-Winners' Cup set cup-winning teams against one another for the right to hoist football's most nakedly tautological piece of silverware. The Champions League is a 'league' of 'champions' (and, occasionally, Liverpool). Glance at the names of any of these events, and you can generally puzzle out what their organisers had in mind for them.
Now glance at the name "Europa League". What information does it convey? It's a league for… the abstract concept of Europe? For women who ride off on divine white bulls? Uefa can't call the competition what it is, since "The Second-Tier Distribution of Teams as Apportioned by Mathematical Coefficients Cup" lacks a certain Heineken Factor. So, in 2008, the Executive Committee looked at all their properties, realised that their top-line competition was played for a trophy called the "European Cup", and — light bulbs going off like mad — decided to name their second-line competition something that confusingly occupied the same logical space as "European Cup" even though it actually had nothing to do with it. Brilliant!
2. A history so rich and varied it is impossible to care about
Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea, and lonely Uefa-sanctioned cup competitions flow to the Europa League. Into its yielding vastness have expired, over the years, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the Uefa Intertoto Cup, the Uefa Cup, the Uefa Cup-Winners' Cup, and, if my notes are right, the Future Farmers of America Tri-County Hog Ribbon of Northern Arkansas, Bantamweight Division. Mark my words: one day soon Uefa will start inventing new cup competitions expressly for the pleasure of one day merging them into the Europa League. Somewhere in Nyon, the Uefa Cup-Winners'-Cup Winners' Cup is taking sinister shape on an intern's Macbook.
Sorry, did you want a legacy with your major continental club tournament? With the Europa League you have so much legacy it's hard to distinguish from having none at all.
3. A format that seems to have been devised by the European Central Bank during one of its periodic failed attempts to unwind over a glass of Chablis
Quick, answer two questions, without looking up the answers. First: Who plays in the Europa League? Second: What path does the winner take to the final?
On question one, if you said, "The Cup winner (or losing finalist) and three other teams from associations ranked 7-9 in the Uefa coefficients and the Cup winner (or losing finalist) and two other teams from all other associations except Liechtenstein, Andorra, and San Marino, which send only the Cup winner (or losing finalist), plus 15 losing teams from the third qualifying round of the Champions League, 10 losing teams from the fourth qualifying round of the Champions League, and eight third-placed teams from the group stage of the Champions League, who enter at the first knockout round," you're wrong, because you forgot the three slots afforded the top associations in the Fair Play rankings in the first qualifying round, idiot!
On question two, if you muttered something indistinct about a series of qualifying rounds leading to a playoff round leading a double-round-robin group stage leading to a series of two-legged knockout rounds with new teams entering the tournament according to a staggered schedule at each stage through the Round of 32 and a one-legged final played at a neutral site… well, whatever, sure. I would also have accepted "no one really knows" and a clean punch in the jaw.
The result of these three problems is that whether or not the Europa League features exciting football, the competition inevitably feels like an abstract, bureaucratic slog, the peak expression of the world of empty acronyms and pop anthems that Uefa increasingly seems to inhabit. It's telling that when the Executive Committee unveiled its plans to transform the old Uefa Cup into the Europa League in 2008, the press campaign was largely focused on branding and marketing rather than the competition itself. They weren't telling us what the Europa League meant. Rather, in a classic Uefa double-twist, they were advertising how they were going to trick us into thinking it meant anything at all.
Well, the new logo is nice. But is it lunacy to suggest that, when organising a football competition, clarity and simplicity are virtues? After all, knowing what's at stake is part of what makes a contest interesting. Some version of the old prizefight idea — you, me and £50 — underlies every exciting tournament. They're playing to settle who's the best team in the county, who's the best team in England, who's the best team in the world. In the Europa League, by contrast, it feels like they're playing to settle who's the best team in a loose federation of arbitrary diplomatic arrangements possibly including Sampdoria. It's mildly exciting if your team is in it, pretty exciting if your team reaches the late rounds, and maybe genuinely thrilling if your team wins. Otherwise, it's vapour.
It doesn't have to be. To my mind, the key to revitalising the Europa League is to stop seeing it as a junior version of the Champions League — that is, as a deadly serious event whose format must at all costs reflect the grandeur of its legacy. All the qualifying-round and group-stage brownouts in the Champions League can be justified by the fact that choosing the Champion of All Europe is a heavy business and one that must be done just so. In the Europa League, those same elements just feel like an excuse to cram in as many matches as possible. But since it couldn't possibly matter less how the champion of the Europa League is selected, why not throw out all the boring parts and try to make the competition as fun and enthralling as possible?
In my Europa League idyll, the tournament would treat its second-class status as a licence to do whatever the hell it wanted. It would emphasise the unpredictable, the dramatic and the eccentric. It would take as its model something like the NCAA basketball tournament in the US, a completely mad and utterly thrilling 64-team championship that features — crucially — single-elimination games. Single-elimination games have never been popular in European football, but for all the disadvantages they offer in terms of absolute fairness (ie, they make it easier for less deserving teams to advance), they have the advantage of being just absolutely crazy fun. Compared to two-legged ties, upsets happen far more frequently and smaller teams ride streaks of good fortune to late rounds they have no business reaching. Every game feels like a final, because, in a sense, it is. The bedrock problem of the Europa League is that the stakes of the tournament itself aren't terribly high. So why not ratchet up the stakes of every individual game?
So: single-elimination matches from the first day to the final. No group stage, period. Neutral stadiums, preferably in fun cities that fans would like to visit. Cluster multiple games at each site for each round, so that if you travel to see Everton play Valencia, you can stick around to see PSV play Braga. I don't really care how many teams qualify, but the more the better, both because it increases the randomness quotient and because it extends the length of the tournament. (194 teams played in the Europa League last year. Why not 256?) Champions League losers can still parachute in, because my Europa League loves sudden shakeups. (And parachutes in general. Parachutes are cool!) Otherwise, no bye rounds, because stacking the deck in favor of the big teams is the single largest contributor to football-tournament boredom in the first place. Arsenal play on day one, gasp horror. Apart from a basic rule to let in as many good teams as possible, I don't really care how the teams are selected, either. My Europa League is going to make up for its lack of conceptual purity with speed, agitation and unfettered awesomeness.
There are a thousand reasons why this is a bad idea. But none of those reasons matter because absolutely everyone would want to watch it. It's mid-November and Liverpool are fighting for their lives in a one-shot knockout match against Brøndby, who have staggeringly managed to upset Newcastle and Ajax in their last two games. The Brøndby captain Clarence Goodson scores a 20-yard screamer early in the second half. 1-0 to the Danes! King Kenny choking down fire on the touchline! You're not going to tune into this? Really?
Oh, right — I forgot to mention money. The single-elimination format would mean fewer games overall, and thus fewer chances for Uefa to wring stray pence out of their TV rights deals, and thus less money for the participating clubs, right? Well, maybe. But if you build a tournament everyone wants to watch for its own sake, rather than simply gliding on the fact that people like watching football in general, the revenue will tend to follow. The 2009-10 Europa League campaign earned €196 million on, by my count, 477 matches. (477! It took 272 games to whittle the thing down to a round of 32.) The 2010 NCAA basketball tournament — also a second-tier national competition, playing to a vastly smaller market, but with a reputation for mayhem and delight — featured 64 games. The TV rights sold for €430 million. Less can be more.
This article appeared on Episode Eighty of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.