As the little brother to the ever-exciting UEFA Champions League (UCL), the UEFA Europa League (UEL) is often maligned as boring and unnecessary. Managers complain that Thursday night matches mess with their teams’ schedules, forcing them to play league games on Sundays. Fans whine that the games aren’t as fun to watch and seem redundant compared to the drama of the UCL. While all of these sentiments have some basis in reality, UEL still has much to offer both coaches and supporters alike.
Background on How the Europa League works
The UEL is set up similarly to the UCL, with teams from around Europe qualifying according to the previous year’s league finish or domestic cup success. A number of qualifying rounds precede the group stage, which consists of 12 groups of four teams for a total of 48. The top two teams from each group qualify for the knockout stages, with the eight third-place teams from the UCL joining up for a round of 32. Each knockout round consists of home and away games, after which the aggregate winner advances. The only exception is the final, which is a one-off match played at a neutral site.
A Shot at European Glory
The most important reason why the UEL is relevant is the simplest: it’s a chance to win a freaking European trophy! No, it doesn’t carry the same weight as ol’ Big Ears, but how many clubs in this year’s UEL will ever have a realistic chance of winning the Champions League? Borussia Dortmund, Monaco and Liverpool probably have the best chances of climbing back into Europe’s premier competition, while other past champions Ajax and Celtic’s triumphs were decades ago. It’s fair to say that almost every other club will never be able to meaningfully compete in the UCL, at least as long as Financial Fair Play is in effect.
The point is that the UEL gives clubs who otherwise would never have a shot at continental glory the opportunity to write their names into football lore. Just ask Sevilla if they regret winning back-to-back Europa League titles in 2006 and 2007. Or if Fulham’s appearance in the 2010 final isn’t one of the proudest moments in the club’s history. What about Galatasaray’s upset of Arsenal in 2000 final on penalties? Fans, managers, and players all live to be a part of big games and compete for trophies. The UEL gives them another medium to do just that.
In addition to an underrated amount of drama, the UEL offers varying amounts of prize money to its participants that can be essential to small clubs and provide a needed financial boost to larger ones. Both the UCL and UEL offer cash payouts to competing clubs according to their success in the competition. While the Champions League is far more lucrative, Europa League payments can help smaller clubs stay afloat.
The farther a team advances in the UEL, the more money they are awarded. There’s quite a range in prize money between the least and most successful teams in the competition; this year’s edition will payout €200,000 to teams knocked out in the first qualifying round, €2,400,000 for reaching the group stage and €6,000,000 to the winners. The early rounds usually consist of clubs from smaller European countries, so the few hundred thousand euros that they receive can make up a significant portion of their budgets. This allows them to reinvest the money in players or pay off club debts that are common in lesser leagues.
Bigger clubs like Liverpool enter at the group stages. For them, the prize money is relatively insignificant because their operating budgets are so huge. Indeed, the €6 million Liverpool would receive for winning the UEL would only buy them just one eighth of Christian Benteke. The real money for these clubs lies in their television value. The way the UEL is set up, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has set aside €83.5 million in television money to be distributed to clubs based on the size of the market they draw. Liverpool is a massively supported club and should command the lion’s share of television revenue. The more games that get televised, the more money they will receive. Thus, teams that remain in the competition for longer play more games and get more TV money. A long run in the UEL could go a long way toward getting Jurgen Klopp the requisite amount of cash to make the signings he wants.
Tomorrow’s Stars Play In The Europa League
Everyone knows that the world’s best play in the UCL. The biggest clubs all hoard the world’s top talents and show them off on Champions League nights. But if the stars of today compete in the UCL, then the next crop of world-beaters plays in the Europa League.
Before players make the step up into world soccer’s aristocracy, they often ply their trade at clubs just a rung or two lower in the UEL. So for the soccer hipsters out there who like to know players before they transfer to the biggest clubs, or those who just want to find a hidden gem for their FIFA manager mode, the UEL is for you.
The evidence is actually pretty striking. Every UEL final since from 2009 to 2014 involved at least two players who have gone on to play for Europe’s elite. In 2009, a young Willian (Chelsea) and Fernandinho combined to lift Shakhtar Donetsk (Manchester City) above Mesut Ozil’s (Real Madrid and Arsenal) Werder Bremen. A year later, David De Gea (Manchester United) and Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) led Atletico Madrid to victory. In 2013, Chelsea liked Benfica’s Nemanja Matic so much that they bought him that summer.
The 2012 final between Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was undoubtedly the most talented, the Bucharest pitch littered with future stars. Atletico’s winning side included Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis (both Chelsea), Arda Turan (Barcelona), as well as Falcao, who was already well known but would eventually suit up for Chelsea and Man United (pictured right). Bilbao boasted the prodigious Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich), maestro Ander Herrera (Manchester United), and striker Fernando Llorente (Juventus). Indeed, European soccer’s next big transfer target often plays in the Europa League before moving into Europe’s top tier.
The UEL may forever be in the shadow of the UCL, but there are a plethora of reasons for its importance. Second-tier European clubs can compete for continental silverware, minnows and sharks alike can win big paydays, and you just might get to see the game’s future kings announce themselves to the world.