AS Roma rejoice as UEFA’s Conference League revives old Europe

THE LAST AS Roma coach to win a European trophy was Luis Carniglia from Argentina. Like José Mourinho, the current toast of the eternal city, Carniglia had won two European Cups before arriving in the Italian capital. He had also been in charge of Real Madrid and had led his team to the La Liga title. Carniglia’s European triumph with Roma was in the long forgotten Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a competition that was not actually organised by UEFA, Mourinho’s latest prize was a much-derided idea by the governing body to provide more pan-European football to the people. In some ways, the Fairs Cup and the Conference League have something in common – the battle to win credibility.

Roma beat Feyenoord 1-0 in an interesting and tense final in Tirana, settled by a deft first half goal from Nicolò Zaniolo. There was something a little nostalgic about this pairing. It took you back to the days of the Fairs Cup and its successor, the UEFA Cup, and judging by the reaction at the final whistle, it left the crowd, the TV audience and the media in no doubt that this cup meant something to both clubs.

Feyenoord might consider themselves a shade unlucky, enjoying a frenetic second half spell that saw them hit the woodwork twice, but Mourinho’s team stuck to a plan, producing a disciplined defensive display with goalkeeper Rui Patricio and central defender Chris Smalling both outstanding. Feyenoord won plenty of friends with their bold style and the future looks bright for the club from Rotterdam and their manager Arne Slot.

We live in an age of acquired elitism, where only the finest of everything is considered worthwhile. This transcends all aspects of life, from personal possessions, property, professions, occupations and lifestyles. In football, the world has become obsessed with the Champions League, so much so that anything less than qualification for the competition is seen as failure. Hence, the Europa League has often been played down and some clubs have clearly not taken it seriously enough. There was a danger the introduction of the Conference League was adding another unnecessary layer to the UEFA competition offering, that it would not appeal to the footballing public. On the evidence of year one, such concerns have all but disappeared.

But how wrong were the sceptics? Not only was the inaugural season successful and very exciting, but it also made the Europa League stronger and more coveted. The Europa is now number two in the portfolio and what’s more, the Conference made glory (something clubs have often forgotten in the pursuit of financial reward) fashionable again.

If there has ever been an ambassador for the idea of relentlessly striving for silverware, it is the Mourinho, so UEFA had just the right man heading towards Tirana. The one-time “special one” (he has asked not to be referred by this label) may no longer be at the cutting edge and may have been usurped by the new age of smart-thinking Pep and Klopp, but he is still an avid collector of footballing objet d’art. For Mourinho, a cup is a cup is a cup and he has now won 21 major prizes (plus other lesser honours). He claimed his players had made history, but he too created a little bit of notable achievement – the first and only man to win all three of the current UEFA trophies.

The Conference League has reminded us Europe’s rich footballing heritage goes beyond clubs propped up by nation states and billionaires.

For Roma, winning was clearly a relief and sparked immense joy in Tirana and back home in Rome. Their last trophy of any kind was in 2008 when they lifted the Coppa italia and their last scudetto was won in 2001. Roma have been champions of Italy just three times, a paltry roll of honour for such a big club. Now, people are wondering if Mourinho could win Serie A in this post-Juve period. Italy has long needed its big clubs to rediscover their power at home and in Europe. The Milan duo have gone through a painful process and have won the last two scudettos, can Roma do likewise and start to become a force?

As for UEFA, they must be pleased and may question the choice of Tirana as the final venue. The limited capacity of the Arena Kombëtan meant less than 20,000 saw the game, but giving it to Albania was not inappropriate and underlined the need to remove some of the elitisim in football. They have already awarded the 2023 final to the Sinobo Stadium in Prague, a modest 20,000 arena.

The competition itself may not have seen the participation of many really top clubs – the last 24 included just four from Europe’s big five leagues –  but there were four former European champions in Feyenoord (1970), Celtic (1967), PSV Eindhoven (1988) and Marseille (1993) taking part. Little wonder that one reporter noted that, “it felt like a final from old Europe”.

Along with the Europa, the Conference reminded us European football’s rich heritage has not always revolved around clubs with nation states or oil men propping them up. We also know more about players like Cyriel Dessers of Feyenoord, Ola Solbakken of Bodø/Glimt and Tammy Abraham of Roma and late of Chelsea.

If we come to terms with the idea that a team like Feyenoord and Celtic will never win the Champions League while corporate football rules the roost, then we need to ensure UEFA’s other competitions have as much relevance and prestige. Nobody in Rome will think twice about how important the Conference League is on the morning after the Giallorossi became the first Italian side to win a UEFA prize since 2010 – when a certain José Mourinho’s Inter completed the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Roma and Mourinho are back, and UEFA’s decision to add a third gateway to Europe was heartily endorsed. An emotional Mourinho held up five fingers at the end of the game to signal he had just won his fifth European prize, an incredible achievement. Or was it to indicate he had ended a five-year barren spell without a trophy?

UEFA and the finals they probably hoped for

THERE were plenty of chin-stroking sceptics and prophets of doom predicting the devaluation of European club football when the UEFA Conference League was created. Most questioned why UEFA was introducing another competition when they had done their best to compromise their original franchise. However, with Roma (European Cup finalists 1984) and Feyenoord (European Cup winners 1970) meeting in the final in a few weeks, the governing body has a very decent game to launch the first final. In fact, wind the clock back 30 or 40 years, and this would have made a good UEFA Cup final or even a compelling European Cup final.

One thing has become clear this season is the role the Europa and Conference Leagues can play in providing genuine excitement and expectation outside of the elite group of clubs that usually compete in the Champions League’s latter stages. For a long time, there seems to have been no place for clubs who are not quite big or grand enough to rub shoulders with teams like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich on a regular basis. The season’s aspiration for a lot of clubs has become “Champions League or bust”, but in truth, this has been so vital because of the financial benefits, somewhere down the line, the idea of “glory” seems to have been mislaid.

When the UEFA Cup was at its peak, it was a very absorbing competition that was often very powerful and consisted of teams that had often gone close to being domestic champions. It was an important second competition in UEFA’s portfolio. The dear old UEFA Cup was weakened by the over-expansion of the European Cup as it morphed into the Champions League, while the diminishing status of domestic cup competitions meant the old Cup-Winners’ Cup often had a very weak field. The Conference League has, arguably, made the Europa stronger and also introduced another layer to create more winners, or at least, more clubs enjoying prolonged runs in Europe. For once, UEFA may have got it right, judging by the excitement that we’ve seen in both the Europa and Conference Leagues. It could be UEFA have finally realised that the greed-orientated growth of the Champions League did more damage than good to the bigger picture.

Looking at the three competitions, the final line-up is really quite appetising: Liverpool versus Real Madrid in the Champions League; Eintracht Frankfurt versus Rangers in the Europa; and Roma-Feyenoord in the Conference. The passion of the crowds at West Ham, Frankfurt and Rangers underlined just how engaged people were in the prospect of a European final. Nobody was taking these games lightly.

As for the Champions League, UEFA could not have wished for more: the club that has been related to the competition since the concept’s inception, Real Madrid, against the English club with the best record. England versus Spain, as opposed to an all-England final that nobody outside Liverpool and Manchester really wanted. What’s more, the game is now in Paris, the birthplace of the European Cup, rather than St. Petersburg.

UEFA may have realised that over-expansion of the Champions League did more harm than good to the governing body’s competition portfolio.

If there are two clubs that can bring out their best form when all around might not be rosy, it is Real Madrid and Liverpool. Real are La Liga champions, but nobody appears totally convinced about their current side. Real Madrid have already lost four games on their way to the final, including one leg in each of the knockout rounds. Only three teams have lost more games, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus (2002) and AC Milan (2003) all defeated five times en route to the competition’s climax.

Liverpool, of course, are fighting on all fronts and the pursuit of the “quadruple” has become the new narrative just as the “treble” was in 1977. It’s fascinating to see how some segments of the media have changed their tune about one team winning everything, suggesting only a year ago that Manchester City sweeping-up would be a bad thing, while the nation should now get behind Liverpool because they are a fine outfit. That may be true, but Monopolies are boring, and nobody apart from the Reds of Anfield will be hoping Jürgen Klopp’s team pull-off an unprecedented haul of trophies in 2021-22.

UEFA will no doubt benefit from a showcase final involving two of the best supported clubs in world football. From a commercial perspective, Real and Liverpool will surely generate more income and media interest than an all-Premier tie or an all-Spanish final. The other aspect is the monotony of another Liverpool-Manchester City clash this season. This will be the sixth England versus Spain final and only once (1981, Liverpool 1 Real Madrid 0) has the result gone in England’s favour. The others include two Manchester United-Barcelona setbacks (2009 and 2011), Barca beating Arsenal (2006) and Real overcoming Liverpool in 2018.

In the past decade, there have been 11 different finalists in the Champions League, but only one new winner (Chelsea in 2012). Interestingly, of the so-called “new money” clubs, the Londoners are so far the only winners of the competition – Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are still toiling away, invariably going out in dramatic circumstances each year as evidenced in PSG and City’s capitulations at the hands of Real Madrid. Furthermore, while Real have won the Champions League four times in the past 10 years, Barcelona, their rivals, have not lifted the big prize more than once, in 2015. Pep Guardiola, the man hired to make his employer – at Bayern and Manchester City – champions of Europe, has not won the trophy since 2011.

It’s clear that both Real Madrid and Liverpool know how to expertly handle the complexities of the Champions League and seem to have an extra quality that enables them to negotiate the competition at a crucial stage. Conversely, PSG and City seem to be unable to keep their nerve when it matters. At some stage, both may win the Champions League, but they will surely have to make sure they don’t come up against wily campaigners like this year’s finalists.