The Europa League was not going to be the poor, maligned, illegitimate cousin of the Champions League, more its much loved younger sibling. There was genuine excitement in Nyon at the prospect of a new competition that would be run along similar lines to the Champions League with its ‘family’ of commercial partners and common pre-set match times & dates. There was even a new catchy tune to rival that of Tony Britten’s 1992 adaptation of Handel’s Zadok the Priest which is now synonymous with the Champions League. It was going to be a return to the heyday of the 1970s and 80s where having replaced the Fairs Cup and sitting alongside the Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Cup was anything but a ‘Mickey Mouse’ trophy.
However, it is probably fair to say that it hasn’t really turned out that way. Whilst fans of Stoke City and Fulham may be hoping that their achievements in the FA Cup and the Fair Play League respectively will take them to far exotic climbs, it is unlikely that the faithful at White Hart Lane or Anfield feel the same way. There is no single reason for this, but in no particular order some of the factors are:
The interminable length of the competition – the road to Dublin 2011 began on 1st July 2010 and even for teams entering after the qualifying stage a minimum of 16 games need to be played before the final.
The Champions League dropouts – your team plays its way across Europe from the Baltic to the Atlantic via a number of Eastern European ‘hotspots’ only to be drawn against a team who have failed in a competition that your team failed to qualify for.
The disrupted domestic season – It is bad enough being shifted to a Sunday or (God forbid) a Monday slot by the overbearing but necessary evil of the broadcast partners, but it is another thing altogether when you don’t have a Saturday home match for nearly three months because you are competing in Europe’s secondary club competition.
Only time will tell whether the clubs from outside the Premier League elite will view qualification as a wonderful chance to play in Europe (my feeling is one season will be enough for the novelty to where off) and whether the ‘big’ clubs will continue to use the competition as a chance to give their second string a run out. The jury is still out and next season will only be the third time that the Bertoni Trophy has been played for, so maybe a little early to label UEFA’s new baby a poison chalice. However it has had a difficult birth and a lot of parental love and attention is required to stop it turning into the exact opposite of what it was meant to be.