Winning a continental trophy is a huge honour for any team and it wasn't too long ago that the Uefa Cup held almost as much prestige as the European Cup. Originating from the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the continent's secondary tournament often featured some of the very best teams in the days when only one team from each country qualified for the top competition.
However, in recent years, particularly since being rebranded as the Europa League, Uefa's secondary continental club competition has come in for some heavy criticism. For many teams it no longer offers enough of an appeal and is seen as more of an unwanted distraction from an important domestic schedule, rather than a legitimate and prestigious trophy to try and win.
The Uefa Cup/Europa League began to expand significantly in the mid 2000s following the end of the Cup Winners Cup, but the inclusion of more teams, in addition to the expansion of the Champions League, has only served to dilute the quality. Winning it is no longer seen as much of an achievement, especially for clubs who would usually identify themselves as Champions League level sides. Teams competing in the old Uefa Cup were the second best team in their respective countries. Now, however, competing clubs from bigger countries could be fifth, sixth or seventh best and in the case of relegated domestic cup winners like Wigan or Birmingham City, could even be from lower divisions.
For some clubs, the Europa League can be an unwanted distraction as they aren't always equipped to fight on domestic and continental fronts. In 2012, Newcastle shocked the Premier League by finishing as high as fifth, but their reward of European football was ultimately a contributing factor to their relegation battle the following season. Without distractions this season, Newcastle have returned to the top half of the Premier League.
Similarly, Wigan endured a difficult start to the current season, trying to balance trips to Russia and Slovenia with their attempts to make a swift return to the Premier League. However, since their European elimination, the Lancashire club have climbed into the Championship's playoff positions and have enjoyed a run to the FA Cup semi-finals. These are just two examples of clubs that have actually been better off without the distraction of the Europa League.
Even for those who are better able to cope with the demands of playing on two fronts, the Europa League still takes a great deal of effort. A team hoping to win the competition will play a minimum of 17 games, while a comparable journey in the Champions League would see just 13. A greater concentration of eastern European teams also gives the Europa League a larger geographical reach and the increased number of games makes the amount of travelling even more challenging.
Clubs which start the season playing in the Europa League may also be put out that trying to win the trophy is not as straight forward as simply beating the others in the competition. Teams eliminated from the Champions League join the pot at both the group stage and the first knockout round. The current system doesn't benefit the image of the Europa League, almost giving it an air of a 'Losers' Cup', while it doesn't seem fair that teams from the Champions League should be given a second chance, arguably at the expense of those already in the competition.
The Europa League also offers little financial incentive, especially when compared to the Champions League. Public interest in the Europa League is significantly and understandably at a much lower level than the Champions League and this is reflected by the far smaller amounts of prize money on offer. The club who wins the Europa League only receives a total amount similar to that of a team competing in the Champions League group stage. For all the extra games, travelling and potentially costly distractions, the prize money doesn't offer enough compensation or incentive to compete.
The Europa League was a rebranding exercise that seems to have failed. UEFA is still trying to make its secondary competition more relevant and appealing by declaring that as of 2015 the winners will be awarded with a place in the Champions League. It is, however, questionable how much difference such an incentive would make when the winners are often teams that would qualify for the Champions League via their domestic league anyway.
The reality is that European football is special and if Uefa can find a real way to fix their secondary competition, then it can become a prestigious and highly coveted trophy once more. Until then, however, with the excessive number of games, the extensive travelling, the lost prestige and a lack of enough comparable financial incentive, the Europa League unfortunately represents more of a nuisance and distraction than a legitimate objective for most clubs.
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