Once upon a time, South Park made a joke suggesting Family Guy’s writing staff were actually a group of manatees, swimming around a giant tank in Fox’s studios. The manatees picked up “idea balls” labelled with keywords which were then used to generate jokes. We obviously know this isn’t the reality of how Family Guy’s staff come up with their ideas, but it’s starting to become increasingly debatable if the same can be said about UEFA.
Over the years we’ve grown to accept the fact that Michel Platini and God-awful, harebrained ideas are synonymous, yet jaws still dropped last week when he churned his latest disaster-waiting-to-happen out of the production line.
Realistically speaking, ‘We’re discussing scrapping the Europa League entirely and running a 64-team Champions League’ probably makes around the same amount of sense as the Family Guy manatees and their ‘Laundry’ + ‘Date’ + ‘Winning’ + ‘Mexico’ + ‘Gary Coleman’ scenario.
It’s extremely fitting that I’m writing this during a week full of European fixtures which are, for the most part, utterly pointless.
Meaningless friendlies wrapped in a pretty bow
In the Champions League, 13 of the coveted last 16 places were already taken going into the sixth and final group fixtures. There was still something to play for in some groups as first and second places weren’t set in stone, but topping the group isn’t necessarily any better than finishing second when teams such as Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk are in the second pot. The only remaining point of interest – and I’m using the word “interest” very loosely here – was which teams would qualify for the Europa League in three of the groups. Just six of this week’s Champions League games counted for something – and that’s if you’re being generous.
In the Europa League, 48 teams are competing for 24 places and 20 of them have already been decided. So, 17 of the games played this week are pointless and a further two are equally pointless providing we don’t see astonishing results. The fact I’m talking about Europe’s second biggest club tournament here is, quite frankly, embarrassing.
All in all, 40 European fixtures were scheduled for this week and 27 of them were nothing more than meaningless friendlies wrapped up in a pretty bow.
How to fix the Europa League…
If the Europa League is too easy for some teams and the Champions League is too difficult for others, why not just put the good teams with the good teams and the bad with the bad? Why on earth would anyone think it’s a good idea to combine the two and have an even larger gulf in class between the teams at either end of the spectrum?
When we pass on Champions League memories to our grandkids, we want to reminisce about the elite clubs facing off – Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Schmona parking the bus and limiting Barcelona to single figures would be forgotten before the second blow of the full time whistle.
I don’t believe there’s anything hugely wrong with either competition in the current format, but there is a fundamental flaw with how clubs view the Europa League which needs to be addressed before it will be taken seriously.
The better clubs in the competition are usually fighting to try to achieve a Champions League place through their domestic position, so Thursday night fixtures are never welcome. They’re seen as a needless hindrance on the legs of star players, which usually results in reserve teams being sent. Thinking about it logically, who can really blame the managers for doing that?
Over the course of the Europa League group stages, there are six Premier League games which immediately follow those Europa League ties. They are worth a potential 18 points to a Premier League campaign, which could very easily be the difference between qualifying for the Champions League the following season and not qualifying for Europe at all.
This negative attitude towards the Europa League isn’t going to change until the competition itself changes, but the alterations don’t have to be as drastic as scrapping it entirely.
Give managers a real incentive to win it
Why not just give managers a real incentive to want to win it? Why not make a simple change, such as offering a Champions League place to the winner of the Europa League? In the current format, the Europa League champions get an instant pass to the group stage of the competition the following year, but who really wants a pass to take part in a mediocre competition which they’ve already conquered? It should be a stepping stone to bigger things, not the pinnacle of a club’s European ambitions.
Offer Champions League seeded spots to Europa winners
Another alternative would be to offer a seeded position in the Champions League for the winners of the Europa League and a spot for the runner-up based on their coefficient. Not only would the Europa League be taken more seriously, but the quality of the Champions League would also benefit.
I don’t think anyone can honestly say Dinamo Zagreb and Nordsjaelland are more deserving of a Champions League place than last year’s Europa League finalists, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao. Surely even the fans would rather see their teams taking part in a competition where they had a chance of progressing, rather than one where they’d be whipping-boys for the top clubs.
Yes, the Europa League would lose some quality as a result of this idea, but the entire point of the Champions League is pitting Europe’s elite against each other.
There are countless ideas similar to the ones I’ve mentioned which are capable of making sure the competitions stay both competitive and in line with what they’re meant to be, but UEFA will never consider such simple concepts. They would much rather claw at random “idea balls” and hope for something revolutionary to materialise.
FourFourTom is a football writer (and Arsenal fan). Follow him on Twitter here.