by Stuart Saint

With minimal effort, it is possible to find a photograph online dated 2006 of Scott Parker, then of Newcastle United, in a rather unique pose. Parker looks disinterested, even irritated, forcing only the faintest of smiles, and is wearing a club tracksuit; presumably the photo was taken before a match. But this is not just another charity presentation or matchday mascot photograph. In his hands he holds something that no other Magpie has held for nearly four decades: a European trophy. The reason for the disinterest is revealed by the inscription on the trophy, which is actually just a plaque: ‘Newcastle United FC – Winner Intertoto Cup 2006.’

At the time, the plaque, compared by many of the Toon Army to a placemat or chopping board, represented the latest incarnation of a widely-ignored tournament that was finally abandoned two years later. Along with the abolition of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, European club football became streamlined, for better or for worse, in to two expanded competitions (the Champions League and the UEFA Cup) with a mix of qualifying, group and knockout stages. The aim was to create two premier tournaments that ran neatly together, rather than four competitions vying for attention across the season with varying degrees of relevance and media exposure. The renaming of the UEFA Cup to the Europa League ten years later signalled a large increase in the tournament’s publicity and prize money, and a step change in how heavily UEFA pushed the competition globally.

It is therefore perhaps a sign of the startling lack of perspective amongst England’s biggest clubs, their fans, and the press that, of all the fates available to a football club, exiting the much-vaunted UEFA Champions League mid-season and being cast to the perdition that is the Europa League ranks amongst the most humiliating on offer. Yet mid-December saw exactly this eventuality unfold for two of England’s entrants. An inability to defend home leads in a relatively tame group did for Manchester United, while Manchester City were unlucky to exit the toughest group with a points total that would have guaranteed qualification in any other group, save for that of their city neighbours. The embarrassment and inconvenience of entering Europe’s second-tier competition is not a trend that began with the Manchester clubs, and they are not the only English clubs that treat the competition with the same indifference that long plagued the Intertoto Cup.

As with most aspects of modern football, the crux of the problem is the money on offer.

At the time of writing, the first matches of the Europa League knockout stages have just been completed. City and United both started life well in their apparently impoverished surroundings, with away victories respectively against such unknowns as Porto, twice European champions and Ajax, twice world and four times European champions. The draw also included Steaua Bucharest and PSV Eindhoven, both former European Cup winners. In comparison to some of the teams who regularly plied their trade in the one European competition that Scott Parker holds a medal in, these are formidable clubs to be competing with.

Given the good company that a club is likely to find itself in should it reach the Europa League knockout stages, why is there such ambivalence towards the competition? As with most aspects of modern football, the crux of the problem is the money on offer. There is a huge financial disparity between the two competitions: the winner of Europa League gets £2.5 million in prize money, whereas a club receives £3.2 million just for reaching the group stages of the Champions League, plus nearly double that for completing all six of their matches. The result is a competition where the total possible winnings do not even reach eight figures, a threshold that Champions League contestants surpass merely by reaching the knockout stages.

In the top six of a league like the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga, the enormous disparities in European competition earnings can dictate a club’s ability to spend in summer, and the possibility of keeping up with competitors. The limited prize money of the Europe League results in clubs being less able to build squads capable of withstanding a fifty game season, should they progress in any competition; Harry Redknapp has regularly implied his annoyance and frustration with the tournament along these lines. Even Bolton under Gary Megson succumbed to his club’s priorities, despite the rarity of European football for the Trotters, when he rested the majority of his first-team squad from the away leg of their knockout stage game against Sporting CP in order to field a full-strength side against Wigan in the league, where survival in the Premier League ensures continued access to lucrative TV rights.

United’s Patrice Evra claimed that demotion to the Europa League was a ‘punishment’ for not performing well in the first half of the season.

All of this led notable medal-hoarder Alan Shearer to despair that, ‘It’s one of those competitions that teams get in to then they try to get out of… You look at the English teams and they all seem to play the reserve teams in it… It’s a million miles away from the Champions League, unfortunately.’ Indeed, after reaching the Champions League for the 2010-11 season, Tottenham Hotspur regarded this season’s re-entry to the second European tier as a failure, and fielded teams packed with youth or squad players such as Steven Pienaar, Giovani dos Santos and Andros Townsend. Aside from Megson and Redknapp, however, the Europa League has provided teams such as Fulham, Birmingham City and Stoke City with European football for the first time in a generation. Michel Platini, introducing the wholesale changes to the UEFA Cup in September 2008, said that ‘I am convinced the new format… will improve this historic competition… it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football,’ and many Cottagers, Blues and Potters would likely endorse this statement wholeheartedly.

Despite this, the ridiculous scene during the Fulham versus Odense match in December, when Jim Rosenthal and Stan Collymore sang the “Thursday nights, Channel Five” taunt as a sarcastic and self-deprecating advertisement for the channel’s Europa League coverage, did nothing to help improve the English perception of the tournament, while United’s Patrice Evra claimed that demotion to the Europa League was a ‘punishment’ for not performing well in the first half of the season. Is it conceivable that, in years to come, some club captains from demoted Champions League teams might share Scott Parker’s stony reception of the Intertoto plaque upon being presented with the Europa League trophy? Of the numerous problems Evra has faced this season, it is imagined that lifting a trophy in May would not be the most severe of them.

With so many teams dreaming of accessing the Champions League’s vase riches, it is perhaps inevitable that the Europa League will continue to face a problem of lack of enthusiasm from some quarters unless changes, financial or otherwise, are made. One incentive might be to follow the lead of CONMEBOL, which allows the winner of their secondary competition, the Copa Sudamericana, to be ‘promoted’ to the Copa Libertadores at the start of the next season, rather than defending their title. This would allow clubs an extra avenue of entry to the Champions League, instead of focusing solely on attempting to qualify via their domestic league.

For all the anthems and updated logos, the UEFA Europa League still suffers from a lack of distinct identity

Perhaps the most effective change in the tournament might come from outside of the Europa League itself, where the continued stranglehold on the Champions League by the elite Spanish, English, Italian and German clubs could create space for the next best nations to dominate the second tier. Last year’s Europa League Round of 16 featured three Dutch, three Portuguese (two of whom, Porto and Braga, contested the final) and three Russian teams, while this year’s Round of 32 contains four Dutch, three Belgian and three Portuguese clubs. Of the ten clubs from the top four leagues in the Round of 32, only three of them dropped out of the Champions League before Christmas, and whether these teams can compete with the premier Russian, Portuguese and Dutch clubs could define the landscape of European football. Consistently more chaotic, unpredictable knockout stages where all of these teams compete evenly could inject a refreshing sense of the exotic and unknown in to the tournament, setting it apart from the exciting yet increasingly predictable Champions League. In this scenario, the tournament might become one best-loved by football nerds and anoraks, but it would at least give the tournament a cult, more cerebral following, the In Utero to the Nevermind of the Champions League.

Many of UEFA’s plans for the Europa League are long-term, and increased revenue, exposure and club enthusiasm are slowly being realised. But for all the anthems and updated logos, the UEFA Europa League, now in the third season of competition, still suffers from a lack of distinct identity and the ubiquitous omnipresence of the UEFA Champions League. This is hardly a rivalry comparable to that of King Lear’s daughters or Cain and Abel, but UEFA need urgently to increase parity between the two competitions if it is to maintain any relevance. Centralised television rights have helped the Europa League increase turnover and stature, just as they did with the Champions League in the mid-1990s, but there is a ceiling on how much broadcasters will pay for a competition that may not feature the very best European clubs until after Christmas, if at all. The Champions League will always be the premier European football tournament, but for the Europa League to truly develop, UEFA needs the incentives and rewards to equate with how seriously the organisation wishes it’s member clubs to take it. With historic clubs such as Manchester United, Porto, Athletic Bilbao and Ajax currently participating, what better time than now to market such a storied competition?