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by Duleep Allirajah
Watching Athletic Bilbao and their bonkers coach may make Thursdays fun, but the Europa League is still pointless.
‘We’ve fallen a bit in love with these Athletic Bilbao players’, exclaimed Five commentator Dave Woods as the Basque side’s Europa League dreams were dashed in Bucharest. Atlético Madrid lifted the trophy but Athletic Club Bilbao won many a neutral’s heart with their thrilling brand of football. The chance to watch Athletic’s cup run was one of the unexpected benefits of the early elimination of British clubs. The Europa League is what’s known in the trade as a ‘much maligned tournament’. However, while Athletic have lit up Thursday evenings, it doesn’t alter the fact that the Europa League is still struggling to justify its existence.
In England, we largely regard the Europa League as a joke. ‘Thursday nights, Channel Five’, was the taunt aimed at Manchester City and Manchester United when both were demoted to the Europa League from the Champions League. The old UEFA Cup was as tough a competition to win as the erstwhile European Cup – some might argue tougher. But the expansion of the European Cup as it became the Champions League has severely diminished the value of the rebranded UEFA Cup.
English managers tend to regard the Europa League as an unnecessary diversion from the Premiership. Harry Redknapp typifies this English scepticism. ‘Teams who get into the Europa League want to get out of it’, he said last year. ‘Half of them put reserve teams out in the early stages and it’s difficult to play every Thursday and Sunday. It disrupts things.’ Sir Alex Ferguson described United’s relegation to the Europa League as a ‘punishment’. UEFA have attempted to breathe new life into the Cup by introducing a group stage in 2004 and rebranding it the Europa League in 2009. However, UEFA’s tinkering has done little to revive the tournament’s prestige. This week, Spurs full-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto said he didn’t want to take part in the Europa League because, in his words, ‘it is useless’.
While the English have a sniffy attitude to the Europa League, the tournament is taken more seriously in other countries. Spanish teams comprised three of the four semi-finalists this season. Anyone who watched Athletic Bilbao’s semi-final against Sporting Lisbon will understand that this was a prize both teams really wanted. Fernando Llorente’s winning goal in the second leg sparked delirium in the San Mamés stadium. The Athletic fans twirled their scarves and shook Spain’s oldest stadium to its foundations while the players wept with joy.
Bilbao, coached by the endearingly bonkers Marcello Bielsa, have become many people’s second favourite team after they dumped Manchester United out of the Europa League this season. The Basque club started the season slowly as the players took time to adapt to the coach’s philosophy. Bielsa’s teams play a high-pressing game, much like Barcelona. The idea is to press and win the ball back quickly in the opposition half. Bielsa’s style is not to play patient keep-ball like Barca, but to move the ball forward quickly through slick interchanges of passes – what Bielsa calls ‘vertical football’. Unlike Barcelona, they don’t find it ethically distasteful occasionally to opt for the long diagonal ball to striker Fernando Llorente. When the pass-and-move game doesn’t work, it’s always a good idea to have a Plan B. When Athletic’s system does work, as it did in both legs against Manchester United, it is both thrilling to watch and extremely effective. United were quite simply played off the park.
Athletic have made Thursday night football on Five something of a guilty pleasure. Some pundits now argue that it’s time to show some respect for the tournament. After the Bilbao v Sporting Lisbon semi-final, Five pundit Stan Collymore launched an impassioned diatribe against English mockery of the Europa League. The Guardian’s Kevin McCarra is another fan of the competition. ‘The Europa League has been a joy and we should rush to treasure it while we can’, he enthused. McCarra thinks that the diminished status of the competition makes for less inhibited performances. ‘[T]he beauty of the Europa League lies exactly in the fact that it does not have one eye on posterity. It has settled for making Thursdays fun’, he wrote.
However, while Bilbao have been fantastic to watch, the Europa League remains deeply flawed. I don’t remember many people enthusing about Stoke in the group stages. I recall a tie between Everton and Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv a few years ago which ranks as possibly the worst European football match I’ve ever watched (and no, I didn’t switch off). Of course, Stan Collymore is inclined to big up the competition. He is employed by Five. The station has a vested interest in talking up the Europa League, just as their commentators are obliged to plug the dismal Steven Seagal films that so often follow the matches.
Okay, so we mock the competition. But don’t blame the English. It’s UEFA who have made a mockery of a once-prestigious competition. The rot started when the runners-up from European domestic leagues were first allowed to enter the Champions League. Creaming off many of Europe’s strongest teams has left the lesser tournament seriously uncompetitive. The group stage serves no apparent purpose except to keep Jim Rosenthal gainfully employed. And as for parachuting in the third-placed teams from the Champions League group phase – well that’s the ultimate mockery. The qualifying rules and tournament format process are now incomprehensible to all but the most nerdy football trainspotter. Brian Phillips, writing in The Blizzard magazine, quipped that the format ‘seems to have been devised by the European Central Bank’, and suggested that ‘Second-Tier Distribution of Teams as Apportioned by Mathematical Coefficients Cup’ might be a more honest name for the tournament.
So ‘what is to be done?’, as Lenin once said (albeit not about the Europa League). A 10-month marathon of a tournament, much of which is unfit for human consumption, is clearly unsustainable. Although UEFA president Michel Platini publicly defends the competition, he has reportedly proposed scrapping the Europa League and creating a 64-team Champions League. I’d do the opposite. How about restricting the Champions League to, er, just champions? If that’s not an option – and the elite clubs would certainly veto it - I’d get rid of the tedious group phase and revert to a straight knockout format. Failing that, I’m afraid the most humane solution would be to kill off the tournament altogether. Harsh on Rosenthal, but in the best interests of football.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.-----
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