By J Hutcherson (Mar 28, 2019) US Soccer Players - It's hard to get a realistic feel for the Europa League these days. By design, UEFA's secondary tournament crowns a non-champion each May a few days ahead of the Champions League final. Attempts to make the Europa League matter crashes into that basic problem. Giving a Champions League group stage spot to the winner makes it as important as finishing in the top four of Europe's biggest domestic leagues. In other words, not all that significant for teams from those leagues.
Chelsea already booked a Champions League group stage place by finishing 3rd in the Premier League. Arsenal is already in next season's Europa League but could upgrade to the Champions League by beating Chelsea in Wednesday's final. If Chelsea wins, that extra Champions League group stage spot goes to Lyon. How one Premier League club winning this season's Europa League benefits a Ligue 1 club is down to UEFA logic. It's because Ligue 1 is the highest ranked domestic league without four Champions League group stage spots, an indication of how silly all of this has gotten.
Meanwhile, it's the Premier League replacing La Liga with the lock on the European trophies. Given how much angst is currently in play across Europe concerning the future of the Premier League, it's interesting that this is the season the Premier League took over. How long that might last is the co competitive question, but it's not lost on anybody that the richest domestic league had the most success this season.
UEFA is already thinking ahead with the concept for a third European competition that would include representatives of leagues that might be shut out of the biggest show. Partially closing off the Champions League has gone from rumor to public debate, with the Europa League stuck in between. What does winning the Europa League mean in 2019? What has it ever really meant?
It's current status as a backdoor into the Champions League might have already be a dated concept. Manchester United used it a couple of seasons ago, but that was before UEFA decided to award four group stage places to its top domestic leagues. Now, it seems like an odd situation for those same leagues. Chelsea wins and Lyon gets rewarded. Arsenal wins and five Premier League teams take group stage spots in the 2019-20 Champions League. Given the current issues with Europe's super clubs and everybody else, that's a lot for everybody else to accept.
For all of the criticism of Europe's elite clubs acting in what appears to be their own best interest and UEFA doing the same in potentially mollifying them, it's worth considering the status of some of those super clubs. The Premier League is by far the biggest beneficiary of the current era of broadcast rights. That's created a financial imbalance that directly leads to a competitive imbalance. It's an us and them scenario between the Premier League clubs and everybody else in Europe super and otherwise. Whatever timeline might have existed for addressing this escalated with the Premier League's European success. The rest of Europe needs an answer right now rather than risk becoming not as competitive.
Whether or not UEFA is still capable of addressing this turned into an open question over the last few months. Their changes to the Champions League and Europa League are about keeping the elite clubs happy. Who those elite clubs happen to be in any given season is almost beside the point. The structure is in place. The spots for the elite teams from elite domestic leagues now guaranteed. The super clubs want more. They want their status guaranteed, and who can blame them? The risk of turning into a soccer club that's less than successful is too real.
Right now, the scenario is obvious. UEFA can attempt to further address those concerns or those same clubs can do it themselves. The Premier League's broadcast rights point the way forward. Imagine what a league of European super clubs could get. This is where UEFA's current system may run into a wall. What more can they do to reconstruct The Champions League and Europa League into something that can keep their lock on the highest level of European competition?
With that in mind, it's easy to see the Europa League in particular in desperation. A tournament that's had the feel of something that the big clubs only take seriously when they realize they're still alive late into the competition now dangles the carrot of the Champions League group stage. Only now there are so many group stage spots available for the elite clubs in the elite domestic leagues, it might not matter. If it does, it sends the message to the rest of Europe that the Europa is just another entry point for a big league club.
That's not just the Europa League problem. It's one aspect of the bigger European club soccer problem. UEFA, the big domestic leagues, and the super clubs are all actively creating and re-creating a system for themselves. It's an open question if any of them are really listening as the rest of European club soccer asks why.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Does MLS know that it’s a league in transition?
- Manchester City, Liverpool, and the Premier League title
- Pep Guardiola and the problem with managing a super club
- The Champions League knockout
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