IT has been bubbling away for a few months, so the recent announcement that UEFA is to launch a third club competition was no surprise, but the reaction to this project has been extremely muted all the same.
Just why UEFA would introduce something that will do little for the quality of European midweek football, other than continue to dilute its value is a mystery, especially as one of the main problems at the heart of the continent is over-blown competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and the current Europa League.
If some of the media stories are correct, then UEFA will play Europa 2 (working title) games at 3.30pm on a Thursday afternoon. Just who will watch these games? Will it be worth taking an afternoon off work to attend a tie played in front of a few hundred people, somewhere in central or eastern Europe? And while they will be on TV, they will be sandwiched between repeats of 1980s lightweight drama and advertisements for funeral plans and over-60s insurance policies.
It does raise questions about the role of European football. There was a time when qualifying for Europe was considered to be a prize in itself. If a club wasn’t able to compete for silverware – and most were not – then qualifying for the UEFA Cup (Fairs Cup) was seen as the icing on the cake. That’s why in the late 1960s and 1970s, English clubs did so well, because they saw “going into Europe” as something that was vaguely exotic. Today, English clubs have a problem with the Europa, because it represents, to a certain degree, inconvenient football that plays havoc with domestic arrangements. But in 2018-19, don’t be surprised if the final in Baku on May 29 is between Arsenal and Chelsea! Or a couple of Champions League refugees, even. Five of the last 10 winners have been clubs that have failed in the UCL group stage – including Atletico Madrid last season, Sevilla in 2016 and Chelsea in 2013.
Should European football be a prize, an entitlement or the shape of things to come? In this globalised world, one in which the man who comes to repair our plumbing or read our electricity metre may have found his way to our door via Warsaw or Madrid, should we still see European football as out of the ordinary or just plain, everyday fare? Given the number of teams involved in the two current competitions runs close to 200, European football has become an essential part of the fixture list for most of the major clubs across the continent, but primarily the Champions League, which is a cash cow for even the most unsuccessful clubs.
But the gulf between the Champions League and Europa League is huge. The former takes virtually every major flagship club from across Europe, leaving the Europa looking very second rate – just look at the group stage of the latter. Chelsea’s group this season is a case in point. The introduction of Europa 2 will only serve to further evaporate the quality of this tier of UEFA’s offering.
How will the public react to their dose of 3.30pm football? The current average gate of the Europa in its current form is 22,000 – less than half of the Champions League’s attendances. It is not inconceivable that once this folly gets underway, we could see some record low crowds – if Thursday night is the graveyard slot for football, Thursday afternoon really will be the land of the living dead.
As some people have suggested, the addition of another competition is all about money, squeezing the corpse of the last bit of life – leveraging the death rattle. It’s hard to get out of your mind that this is about as credible as bringing back the Toto Cup.
What UEFA should really be thinking about is slimming-down the Champions League, making the Europa stronger and perhaps reintroducing the Cup-Winners’ Cup (ECWC). Aside from upsetting corporate backers, the UCL can survive a restructuring that removes third and fourth-placed clubs and pushes them into a Europa League that becomes more robust, more credible and more exciting. And a new ECWC has benefits in that it will provide a prize for winning domestic cup competitions that have taken a battering in some countries. Some might say the ECWC was the weakest of the old trio of Europe’s competitions, but the new Europa 2 is merely sacrificing quality for quantity. Will it be any weaker?
It’s easy to hark back to an era when a glimpse of foreign footballers was akin to welcoming visitors from outer space to your local club, but the romance of European two-legged ties has long gone. It still has a fascination, but it no longer represents a prize or a journey of exploration for most people. That doesn’t mean the golden goose can be stuck on the griddle or that cash cow can be milked dry. Devaluing a currency has long-term implications and right now, UEFA is in danger of making a huge mistake. Sometimes, less is more, but as we have seen with FIFA’s World Cup expansion and UEFA’s drive to destroy the Euros, the pursuit of money sometimes outweighs common sense.