The Europa evolution and the danger of quantity over quality

WITH THE Europa League about to undergo drastic change, culminating in the creation of the  Europa Conference League, UEFA’s lesser competitions may continue to lead an uncomfortable existence. The Champions League, for all its excitement and glamour, has already eradicated the European Cup-Winners Cup and devalued the Europa League. It is difficult not to feel there is now simply too much European club football.

The Champions League took the cream from the old UEFA Cup, a tournament that was often very strong and included some of the continent’s biggest names, but this was preceded by a strange bun fight called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the brainchild of a trio of experienced football administrators – Sir Stanley Rous, Ernst Thommen and Offorino Barassi – keen to capitalise on increasing cross-border trade in post-war Europe.

The Fairs Cup, as it became more commonly known (the full name was a bit of a mouthful, after all) was the European Champion Clubs’ Cup’s ugly cousin. It wasn’t UEFA-endorsed (not a lot of people know that) and it was structured, unashamedly, around commerce as much as football.

Representatives

To qualify, the club had to represent a city that held trade fairs and initially, it was restricted to one club from each city. Trade fairs boomed in the post-WW2 years and countries like Germany, France and Italy seemed to love them. Indeed, today no large German city is complete without a “Messe”, usually comprising huge exhibition halls. Somebody came up with the idea that football could be used to publicise and market these trade fairs. More likely, it was really all part of a plan to unite Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. It was no coincidence that the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 – the European Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup were inaugurated in 1955 and the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1960.

In its early years, a number of rep teams were among the entrants. For example, Barcelona had a team but it was an “XI” rather than the club itself, and London had a team drawn from across the capital. The first two were run over a two-year period, underlining the possible inconvenience of interrupting domestic programmes. 

The competition may have been a little rough at the edges – Chelsea, when playing in Rome were bombarded by missiles, including a urine-filled balloon and in the same city, Lazio and Arsenal players brawled in the street –  but the trophy itself was a beautiful piece of objet d’art. It was known as the Noël Béard Trophy, a Swiss industrialist whose family were manufacturers of hotel dining equipment. The cup, the original of which sits in the Barcelona FC museum (with assorted replicas dotted around Europe), was also known as the Coupe des Villes de Foires and was won by Barca for keeps in 1971 as the trophy was retired to make way for the more imposing, and arguably less attractive, UEFA Cup. 

But the Fairs Cup had a strange “one club, one city” rule that was a very unpopular, especially in England in 1968-69 when the final league table saw Everton and Chelsea both missing out on European football because Liverpool and Arsenal had finished above them. There were three places up for grabs, although in effect there were two as the Football League Cup winners would be allowed into the Fairs Cup. But in 1968-69, Swindon Town of the third division won the League Cup and were barred from entering. In normal conditions, the three places would have been filled by Liverpool, Arsenal and Swindon Town. And if the one-club, one-city rule was not in force, it would have been Liverpool, Everton and Swindon Town. Actually, England had four entrants in 1969-70 as Newcastle entered as holders. Given that Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham could not be considered, the additional place went to Southampton, who had finished in seventh position.

Toss

There was another quirk of European football that made a mockery of the effort that went into fulfilling an overseas fixture, and that was the toss of a coin to decide a stalemate over two legs. Thank heavens for penalty shoot-outs (!).  Just imagine, AC Milan and Chelsea, in 1965-66, battling out not two but three games, only to settle the tie by flipping a Deutsch Mark. 

Before English clubs got a grip on the things, Spanish teams dominated the Fairs Cup. They clubs won six of the first seven Fairs Cups, Roma being the only club to break the sequence. Then the Eastern Bloc had its day, with Ferencvaros and Dinamo Zagreb lifting the trophy.

The European Cup and its obese big brother, the Champions League, have always overshadowed other competitions and the Fairs Cup was no exception. But by the time it became the UEFA Cup, in 1971, it was getting very strong. A UEFA Cup run was a test of endurance. Just consider Liverpool’s 1972-73 campaign: 12 games, four against West Germans, four against East Germans, two versus Greek opposition and a semi-final double header with holders Tottenham. And if you examine the 64 teams taking part, there were 21 teams that finished runners-up in their respective leagues in 1970-71, 22 that came in third, 11 fourth, six in fifth, one in seventh and two in 11. Furthermore, between 1971-72 and 1984-85, of the 14 UEFA Cup winners, six were also their domestic league champions, including Juventus, PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Feyenoord.

There is no doubt the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup grew up and became an attractive prize for a decent season, a little bit of icing on the cake for teams that couldn’t quite make the European Cup. For teams that couldn’t win a trophy, qualifying for Europe was the next best thing but the expansion of the Champions League, sweeping-up teams that once graced the UEFA Cup, has devalued that process considerably. Instead of merely adding to their portfolio, UEFA may have been better advised to slim-down the premier tranche, strengthening the Europa and therefore making a third product that bit more credible.

It is difficult to see if UEFA’s plans will improve the quality of the two Europas and make the concept of European football more attractive. Part of the problem is that the world has shrunk since the 1950s and 1960s when pan-European football started to grow. European football competitions have lost a lot of their exclusivity and you can see foreign stars in all the major domestic leagues. Trans-European football is no longer seen as a reward for some clubs, regardless of the financial inducements.

@GameofthePeople

Soccer City: Frankfurt – aiming to be Fußballplatz

EINTRACHT FRANKFURT reached their first UEFA semi-final since 1980 when they overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Portugal’s Benfica on away goals in the last eight of the Europa League.

Eintracht may not be regular European contenders these days, but the club played its part in one of the most famous matches of all time, the 1960 European Cup final which they lost to Real Madrid by 7-3 at Hampden Park. Eintracht were German champions in 1959, their only title, and had the audacity to take the lead after 18 minutes. The likes of Di Stefano and Puskas made them pay for that and Die Adler(the Eagles) were on the end of a drubbing.

Frankfurt is not considered to be a hotbed of football in the Munich sense, the city is better known as the financial centre of Germany, Finanzplatz Frankfurt. It is the home of the European Central Bank and other major companies such as Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Bundesbank and Holzmann. Frankfurt is the biggest and most important financial hub in continental Europe and is hoping to capitalise on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The city on the River Main is often unfairly criticised for lacking character, but does include the most spectacular range of tall buildings, earning it the nickname of Mainhattan.

Aerial photo of Commerzbank Arena stadium 03.06.2015. Photo: PA

There are few more international or cosmopolitan cities in Germany than Frankfurt. It has a population of 750,000 and a big expatriate community, the majority of which are employed in the financial sector. Its airport is one of the busiest in Europe.

Frankfurt is also the home of the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), the game’s governing body. It was founded in 1900 in Leipzig but is now based close to the Commerbank Arena, the home of Eintracht Frankfurt and an impressive ground that was once known as the Wald Stadion. The stadium has been refurbished several times down the years and was one of the 2006 World Cup venues. It has a retractable roof and a capacity of 51,500. It’s just a short train journey from the airport and has its own station. Frankfurt was buzzing during the World Cup, with games also being shown on the river Main for crowds to enjoy. The city, indeed the whole of Germany, put on an excellent show for FIFA.

Eintracht Frankfurt were founded in 1899. Their most productive period was in the 1970s when they won the DFB Pokal twice and finished in the top four of the Bundesliga. Their team included players like Jürgen Grabowski, Juup Heynckes and Bernd Hölzenbein.

In 2018-19, Eintracht are enjoying something of a resurgence, which is not necessarily good news for Europa semi-final opponents Chelsea. They are currently fourth in the Bundesliga and their Europa League run builds on their 2017-18 DFB Pokal triumph over Bayern Munich in Berlin.

Their attacking style has made them popular with neutrals. The club has a good relationship with its fans, engaging with them over a broad range of issues. Curiously, after beating Benfica in the Europa quarter-final, their fans, who had created a fantastic atmosphere, pushed over a barrier in their eagerness to celebrate with their players, but they did not invade the pitch.

Photo: PA

The close season saw a mass influx of new players, including Eintracht’s former goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, Paris Saint-Germain’s goalkeeper, who returned on loan with a view to a permanent move. Trapp was one of the heroes in the Europa tie with Benfica, pulling-off a late save and turning the ball against a post.

At the other end, Eintracht have been boosted by the goals of Luka Jović, a 20 year-old Serbian striker who originally joined the club on loan from Benfica. Eintracht have been so pleased with their young goal poacher that they triggered the EUR 7 million loan-to-buy clause.

Jović became the youngest player to score five goals in a Bundesliga game when Eintracht beat Fortuna Duesseldorf 7-1 this season. As well as Jović’s 17 goals, France under-21 international Sébastien Haller has netted 14 times in the Bundesliga.

In the Europa League, Eintracht have been in excellent form, winning all six of their group games against Lazio, Apollon Limassol and Marseille. In the round of 32, they beat Shakhtar Donetsk and then overcome Inter Milan (a notable away win) before disposing of Benfica.

Adi Hütter took over as coach in May 2018 after Niko Kovač joined Bayern Munich. Hütter, an Austrian, was previously coach at Young Boys Bern and before that, Red Bull Salzburg. Eintracht made a poor start under their new manager, losing three of their first five games in the league. They have lost just once in the Bundesliga in 2019 and their most recent run of five consecutive victories ended on April 14 with a home defeat against Augsburg. Eintracht’s average gate in 2018-19 is 48,475 making them the seventh best supported club in the Bundesliga.

Photo: PA

Crowds at Frankfurt’s other clubs are not so impressive. FSV Frankfurt, a club that was runner-up in the German championship in 1925, play in front of around 1,300 people at the 12,000 capacity Frankfurter Volksbank Station in the Bornheim district of the city. FSV play in the Regionalliga Sued West and in 2018-19 are below mid-table. As recently as 2016, FSV were in 2.Bundesliga when they were relegated to 3.Liga and they suffered a second consecutive demotion in 2016-17.

Even lower down the German football pyramid are Rot-Weiss Frankfurt, who date back to 1901 and have had a number of identities, including Frankfurter FV Amicitia and SG Bockenheim, the district where the club resides today. Their home is the Stadion am Brentanobad and they compete in the Hessenliga.

Frankfurt may never be as “sexy” as Berlin, Munich or Hamburg, but its top football club, which plays entertaining, powerful football, can help change its image. It is an extremely accessible city and one that acts as a gateway to all corners of Europe. Chelsea have a very tough task when they travel to Germany – Eintracht, after all, are a top four Bundesliga club – one that may, eventually, elevate Frankfurt-am-Main to a similar status to more celebrated football cities in Germany.

 

 

Missing the point – Europa 2

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.

Photo: PA