European club football is a big enough beast to effectively host and sustain two major continent-wide cup competitions. However at present, it's failing. It's failing to maximise the potential of its secondary prize, the recently rebranded UEFA Europa League, and through persistent, unnecessary and counter-productive adjustments to the format, has created an entity as appealing to be a part of as the English Defence League.
The UEFA Cup, as it should still be known, shouldn't be seen as a bad competition to win. It shouldn't have become a booby prize, it shouldn't be labelled as a tin pot and it shouldn't be sniffed at. But frustratingly the competitions regulatory body, UEFA, have made winning the competition seem as glorious an achievement as beating a severely dyslexic child at Scrabble.
A competition that once played host to historic, esteemed, huge clubs from across the continent, showcasing a fantastic standard of competitive football with fans creating an atmosphere to match is now being sold as the attractive Champions League's ugly, fat friend.
The modern day Europa League has been labelled as an inconvenience, a distraction, a consolation prize and unworthy of the presence of Europe's premier club outfits. The most recent winners, Chelsea, appear to have done so begrudgingly, having progressed in the competition due to their failure to defend their Champions League crown beyond the group stages.
In order to restore some semblance of balance amongst the two-tier competition structure in European football, UEFA need to swallow their pride and admit defeat where the flawed Europa League format is concerned, and realise the current structure is directly responsible for undermining a competition they're so desperate to see succeed and flourish. Who knows, perhaps by restoring a degree of credibility to their competition, more teams might look at the prospect of participation with more respect and excitement than vocal disappointment.
For starters, teams in the Champions League should not be granted the safety net they currently are when failing to qualify to the knockout stages of UEFA's primary competition. The term 'knockout competition' might give the game away somewhat, but allowing teams a second birth in the Europa League gives the sides that have contested it from the beginning a distinct sense of gross injustice when they proceed to be eliminated by the descending pack of Champions League failures.
A bloated entity from the first game onwards, the entire competition apparently involves around 160 club sides in total, eventually whittled down to a healthy 48 in the groups. The eventual winners will have played around 20 extra games, equating to half a full league season in most of the continents top leagues. All this achieves is to give the teams who don't want to commit their full resources to the competition entirely the get out clause of blaming fixture congestion. While there may be a correlation between a sustained European challenge and loss of form domestically, if there was more prestige attached to winning the competition, surely this would help placate both the clubs and the fans who mutually view the entire competition as an unwelcome hindrance?
With more games scheduled to be played in order to win the competition for less significantly less prize money than the Champions League, the incentive to win the Europa League is severely lacking compared to its much adored big brother, with some sides viewing it as an opportunity to give their fringe players a game or two before unceremoniously bowing out, rather than going full tilt for silverware. Much like the rest of the competitions faults, all these formatting quirks do is allow the rhetoric to build surrounding the harmful nature of being a part of the Europa League, fans deciding that an attempt at European silverware isn't fully justified by the means in place to obtain it, or the rewards afterward.
With an elite level of player apparently sharing this view, and deciding the best way to further their careers in through the Champions, rather than Europa League, the knock-on effect is what has created this derailing perception of the competition. Clubs, fans and players alike seem to be in agreement that the Europa League doesn't do enough to service the wont of anybodies desires.
Remarkably, the managers and clubs that do decide that the Europa League is worth their full attention regardless of its various faults are often lambasted, ridiculed for taking such a 'minor' trophy so seriously. Coincidentally, the teams best placed within the competition at the beginning to go the distance and win the whole thing are often the same clubs whose domestic league seasons aspire toward finishing in the Champions League qualification positions. Surely UEFA might explore the possibility of allowing the winner of the Europa League a guaranteed path in to the qualifying rounds of their top tier competition?
By eliminating the chance of being knocked-out of a competition by a club suddenly parachuted in midway from another, and allowing the winner a path in to the much more lucrative, illustrious Champions League that is apparently at the forefront of everybody's desires; perhaps clubs, players and fans alike may start to view the competition much differently, taking it seriously as a chance to further their own horizons, whilst directly improving the competitiveness and desire of those currently disinterested as a result. A slight reformatting could lead to reinvigorating the concept entirely, for the benefit of everyone involved.
In short, UEFA need to stop being so tentative about promoting the Europa League to the level they do their other competitions. There is little chance that any increased support of another UEFA entity will hurt the appeal of the Champions League; a competition which has now grown to such a stature that it is unlikely to do anything but increase in popularity. By adjusting the competition as suggested, they will improve it's credibility for those involved exponentially, and those who view it as a flawed format will have less reason to promote such a negative rhetoric where the competition is concerned. With clubs more interested in the cup, increasing their chances of winning it, fan support will naturally flourish as a consequence, creating a buzz about the entity as a whole that is currently severely lacking. This competition not only has the capacity to return to former glories, but to grow beyond it, improve upon it and create a cup that is worthy of the attention the Champions League garners; it's just a case of whether or not UEFA have the wherewithal to make a change for the better, and I for one hope that they do.