Atlético Madrid won the Europa League last night, thanks primarily to a concerted display of attacking football from Radamel Falcao. The Colombian hit man has netted 12 times in the competition this season, and this impressive strike rate will likely see England’s big guns make a move for the 26-year-old in the summer. Still, if you asked Harry Redknapp, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Roberto Mancini or any other manager from the footballing “elite” of this country, they would tell you that the Europa League is a worthless competition. Some may even go so far as to suggest that it ought to be abolished, because it simply “doesn’t matter.” Tell that to the Spanish. And the Portuguese.
The disdain for the Europa League in England is typical of the haughty, arrogant manner in which we judge the various merits and weaknesses of our own competition, which disgracefully extends to the Premier League and nothing else, and that of the rest of Europe. Are we missing something here? The answer is yes. Far from being some sort of mickey-mouse, two bit little tournament, the Europa League is the second most prestigious pan-European competition.
In the 2009/2010 season Fulham took the competition seriously, and reached the final. They lost, but the Europa League run was unforgettable for the Lilywhites, and afforded the club far more prestige and respect from the international football community than finishing 11th in the Premier League. Aha, you say, but “little” clubs like Fulham should take it seriously, whereas “proper” teams such as Tottenham Hotspur have bigger fish to fry. Wrong. How many years have Spurs been in the Champions League post-1999? One, 2010-2011.
By chasing the false dream of a top four finish, English clubs are wilfully ignoring the spirit of the game and evoking that most modern of greed that has seen competitions such as the FA Cup and League Cup discarded to one side in pursuit of the all-important goal of the top four. Atlético Madrid probably weren’t thinking of revenue when they set their minds to the Europa League this season. For them, both this year and in 2010, for Athletic Bilbao and for Porto in 2011, there was some sort of “higher” glory beyond the television revenue that Champions League qualification brings.
Perhaps this view is too antiquated for the modern game. It is probably naïve to suggest that football is, or at least should be, about winning on the pitch, not making the biggest profit off of it. Maybe the Premier League ought to institute the 39th game: that way clubs will get all the benefits of playing in different cities, experiencing new and exciting climes and testing themselves against unfamiliar opposition, with the financial benefits which over-rule everything I’ve just said.
Gone are the days when Europe lay down and quivered at the sight of the “big four” in the Champions League. This year’s semi-final line-up, which featured just one club from these shores, proved this. England is in real danger of losing its edge even further in Europe’s premier club competition, and disregarding the second simply means that, in absence of any support from abroad, Sky will have to keep telling us that “our league” is the, quote, “best in the world”, even when the evidence suggests that this is frankly not the case. It is also worth pointing out, as a final salvo, that only seven clubs have participated in the Champions League, representing England, in the past decade. With the immense television revenue only crystallising the financial inequality in the top flight, this won’t be changing any time soon.
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