The Europa League – Europe’s Second-Tier International Club Competition
European football has revolutionised the global game. To many, the Champions League represents the pinnacle of competitive football, but deep runs in the competition are mainly reserved for the game’s elite. For those that operate just below the top level in the most significant leagues, and the most prominent names from their smaller counterparts, there’s the Europa League.
While it doesn’t have the prestige or prize money of its more illustrious brother, the second tier of European competition still boasts big players, iconic teams and plenty of intriguing matchups throughout each season.
Rebranding the UEFA Cup
European football has never been without a secondary club competition since the birth of the Champions League. However, the UEFA Cup and subsequently the Europa League carried on the tradition of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Such was the importance of this predecessor that UEFA opted to take over the competition and rebranded it as the UEFA Cup in time for the 1971-72 season.
English clubs made hay while the sun shone following the rebranding and introduction of a new format. Wolverhampton Wanderers took on Tottenham Hotspur in the first final, with Spurs emerging victorious. Liverpool won the second edition, but other countries soon started to make their mark with Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands each represented in the first five finals and Juventus of Italy beating Athletic Bilbao of Spain in the next.
Initially a straight knockout competition over two legs, the Europa League rebrand took place during the 2009-10 season to better reflect the competition’s overhaul and the introduction of a 48 team group stage.
160 Competitors and a Close Relationship with the Champions League
Before the group stage gets underway, teams must navigate three qualifying rounds and a final playoff round. As many as 104 teams enter at the first qualifying stage, which harks back to the original format with each playing their round opponents home and away.
Teams that drop out of the Champions League in the early stages then make up the rest of the competitors. Losers in the premier competition join at various qualifying rounds to make up the numbers and give them a second chance of sorts.
Finally, the eight teams that finish third in their Champions League groups join the Europa League at the knockout stage.
Legendary Participants and Famous Finals
While not the top tier of competitive football across Europe, the UEFA Europa League boasts an illustrious history. World-renowned teams such as Liverpool, Juventus and Internazionale rank among the most successful. The competition is also known for giving big clubs from smaller leagues a share of the spotlight. Porto, Feyenoord and IFK Göteborg have each won the tournament on more than one occasion.
Liverpool’s 5-4 victory over Alaves in the 2001 final lives long in the memory, as does Napoli’s Maradona-inspired 5-4 aggregate victory over Stuttgart in 1989.
The prize money on offer for a deep run in the UEFA Europa League is enough to make a significant impact on the balance sheet of even the biggest clubs. The ultimate prize for the winners, that being Champions League qualification, ensures that while the Europa League is secondary on the pyramid, it can make a world of difference to those that do well.