UEFA Europa League: Arsenal and United swing into action

TWO English clubs who would really prefer to be slugging it out in the Champions League start their Europa League campaigns. Arsenal, who have not participated in the premier competition since 2016-17, return to Europe with a trip to FC Zurich. Manchester United, who reached the last 16 of the Champions League in 2017-18, have had to settle for the Europa this season.

Arsenal are playing in St. Gallen because the match clashes with an athletics meeting in Zurich. Despite losing their unbeaten record against Manchester United, they arrived in Switzerland as Premier League leaders, with five wins from six games. They have been in excellent form, playing attractive football and scoring goals, a big contrast from their opponents, who have started 2022-23 abysmally. Zurich, Swiss Super League champions in 2021-22 for the first time since 2009, have just two points from their first even games. The mood was set on the opening day of the season when they were thrashed by Young Boys 4-0.  

Zurich lost their coach, André Breitenreiter to Hoffenheim and appointed Franco Foda as his successor in June 2022. Foda is a very different manager to his predecessor. “We were deliberately not looking for a copy of Breitenreiter, but an experienced coach who can develop this team both technically and tactically,” explained Zurich’s president Ancillo Canepa. Despite their league form and an early Champions League exit, Zurich shifted to the Europa and have beaten two British clubs already, Linfield and Hearts.

Arsenal will be among the favourites for the Europa League this season. Their two European trophies have, unfortunately, been consigned to history. The first was won in 1970, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, which was not a UEFA-inaugurated competition, and they lifted the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1994.

Manchester United are in far better shape than they were a few weeks ago and will also be among the more fancied teams. They have beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in recent games and have dispersed the black clouds that descended on Old Trafford in August. Manager Erik ten Hag has turned round what was becoming a very tricky situation. Their 3-1 win against Arsenal was impressive and marked the debut of Brazilian striker Antony, who scored the first goal in that victory. Ten Hag has shown resilience in the way he has handled the Cristiano Ronaldo affair well and the Portuguese striker has been used sparingly. United won the Europa in 2017 and were finalists in 2021.

Real Sociedad have had a patchy start to the season and have struggled to score goals. They could include former Manchester City midfielder David Silva in their line-up. They have a modest European record having played in the Europa for three consecutive seasons, but their best run was in the European Cup in 1983 when they reached the semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Hamburg SV.

There are other attractive games in the first matchday of the Europa League. Lazio are playing Feyenoord, the runners-up in the UEFA Conference League last season. Lazio, under Maurizio Sarri, have lost just once in Serie A and have been in decent form. They still have Ciro Immobile in their forward line, but the sharp-shooter is now 32 years old. They finished fifth last season and they should be in for another good year. Feyenoord are unbeaten, winning four of their five games, and are third in the Eredivisie. They are old European campaigners, having won the European Cup in 1970 and UEFA Cup in 1974 and 2002.

Red Star Belgrade have also won the European Cup, in 1991, and they remain Serbia’s most visible club on the international stage. They host Monaco, who reached the Champions League final in 2004 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1992. Red Star were denied a place in the Champions League group stage by Maccabi Haifa, while Monaco were eliminated in the third qualifying round by PSV Eindhoven. Red Star are unbeaten in their domestic league, but trail surprise club Novi Pazar by a single point. Monaco’s league form has been mixed so far.

There are 12 other group games:  PSV v Bødo/Glimt; AEK Larnarca v Rennes; Fenerbahce v Dynamo Kyiv; HJK Helsinki v Real Betis; Ludogorets v Roma; Union Berlin v Union Saint-Gilloise; Malmo v Sporting Braga; Omonia Nicosia v Sherrif; Sturm Graz v Midtjylland; Nantes v Olympiakos; Freiburg v Qarabag; Ferencvaros v Trabzonspor.

In pursuit of proper ultras

Zurich Photo: GOTP

VISIT any continental European club and you’ll find evidence of the valuable contribution fans make to the football experience. Invariably, the highlight of a trip abroad is the sight of a well-choreographed crowd – lots of smoke, banners and the inevitable man with a loud-hailer at the front urging the masses on.

For a while now, it has become clear that English crowds are somewhat muted compared to their foreign counterparts. In the past, the audience at the average top flight game was quite passionate, but unfortunately, this intensity was often accompanied by bad behaviour, or at least antics that required a heavy police presence. As the 1970s unfolded, and crowds became more unruly, attendances fell dramatically.

Crowds had already slumped from their post-war boom highs when England kicked-off the 1966 World Cup. This triumph gave the game a boost and by 1968, the first division average had climbed to 33,000. In 1974-75, crowds dipped to 27,000 and thus started a steady decline that bottomed-out in 1984 with sub-19,000 gates.

The game was effectively dying but started to revive after 1990 when England enjoyed a successful World Cup in Italy. Then Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne went off to Italy and suddenly, British TV audiences were being shown Italian football on Channel 4. Italy was seen as the benchmark and was much envied by British football administrators for its passion, huge crowds and all-star teams drawn from all over the world. In 1992, the Premier League was formed, which meant very little at the time, but this was the catalyst for the birth of the all-consuming beast that is the EPL. While Italy, due to economics, scandal and violence, lost its position at the table, the Premier became the model for conspicuous consumerism, inflated investment and big crowds.

But these crowds are very different to the ones that donned flat caps, rattles and a tepid cup of Bovril. The old football audience had dwindled between the late 1960s and mid-1980s and should the trajectory have continued, it would have disappeared altogether. The creation of the Premier, a heavily marketed league, rescued English football, but at the same time, evolved into a consumer product that continues to get more and more expensive. By definition this accelerated the gentrification of the game with middle class professionals wielding season tickets like a status symbol. New stadiums have sprung up all over the country, nine of the current Premier have had new grounds in the last 20 years and in total, over a third of the 92 have been relocated since 1989. At the same time, the demographics have changed. It is not just a lack of younger people, but also the type of person that is now attending games. In London it is arguably more crystallised than elsewhere, but there are many “tourists” at stadiums like Chelsea and Arsenal. Home crowds are frequently quieter than a small group of visitors from abroad. With the exception of a few clubs, the concept of the contemporary “ultra” seems to be lost on English football.

While this is undoubtedly welcomed by some, it makes for a relatively flat atmosphere at many games. In almost any major city in Europe, the local club(s) will always have a group of [young] fans that provide the soundtrack at the game, for 90 minutes. Sooner or later, attempts will surely be made to replicate this type of support in Britain on a broader scale.

Ultras, historically, were perceived as trouble, but now in most cases, it means the noisy segment of the crowd that chants sings and really adds to the occasion. At some clubs, the leader announces the teams, getting the fans whipped-up into a passionate state as each player’s name is read out. Clubs that allow this clearly understand the relationship between the fans and the players and how a noisy backing can create the “12th man” effect. Can you imagine this taking place across English football?

In order to do this, you need young supporters and reasonable ticket prices. Middle-aged men and women are not going to jump around in support of their team, not without dislocating a shoulder or hip!

It’s quite simple, is it not? Make football more affordable and the young – the patrons not just of today, but of tomorrow – will be engaged and you might just see the sort of backdrop you find in the Bundesliga. The 30 and 40 somethings may have the cash to afford the ludicrous pricing policies that exist, but they will not provide the mood that is so essential to the game of football. Not for 90 minutes, anyway…

 

This article appeared in the last edition of Football Weekends, reproduced with permission