With European football’s major cash cow The Champions League being brought out for milking this week, you could be forgiven for forgetting that The Europa League also starts its group stage fun and games on Thursday. But really, why should you care?
Admittedly, it features some past Champions-League luminaries, such as Liverpool, Lyon, Inter Milan, Udinese, and media darlings Athletic Bilbao, but it also features a number of teams you probably wouldn’t cross the road to watch (hello Neftchi Baku and Ironi Kiryat Shmona!).
UEFA has given it a name change and a format change but at the end of the day, winning it gives you a little money and well…you get to play in it again the following year. Winning the Europa League gets you approximately $4m, which is the same as making it to the last 16 of the Champions League and then getting knocked out.
You could argue that it can push teams on to bigger and better things, but aside from Porto winning it in 2003 and then the Champions League in 2004, there’s not a lot else going on. I’m still waiting for recent winners like Atletico Madrid, Shaktar Donetsk, and Zenit St Petersburg to do well with the big boys.
What it does do is put players and managers in the shop window. Following Bilbao’s impressive run to last years final, midfielder Javi Martinez secured a $40-million move to Bayern Munich. For a manager, doing well in the competition seems to make you flavour of the month. It secured Andre Villas Boas an ill-fated move to Chelsea, likewise for Juande Ramos to Tottenham and helped Middlesboro manager Steve McClaren get the chance to make a mess of the England post.
Despite all this, as a Tottenham fan, I’d like to see my side actually giving it a go this season (as opposed to last season when it was a run out for youngsters and reserves). Spurs v Lazio seems like an exciting tie to me, as do Liverpool v Udinese and Lyon v Bilbao. As a hopeful and hopeless football fan, winning games and trophies is always appreciated, and maybe Spurs might see their way to giving Dempsey, Adebayor, and Lloris some actual game time.
Really, the fault for the diminishing status of the competition rests with UEFA, and the solution is simple. Nothing is prized more by European sides than a place in the Champions League. Simply give the winner of the Europa League a place in the Group Stages of the following Champions League. When ending up 4th in your league is better than winning the FA Cup or the Europa League, you have a problem.
Continue the debate on Twitter: @chiefhairyman and #rantsoccer