Ah, European football. One of if not the most entertaining and fascinating spectacles in world sport. Whether you support a big club that makes regular appearances in the Champions League Final or a small club that qualified for the Europa League for the first time in its history, the continental game is must-watch television, whether you’re a sports fan or not.
But starting in 2021, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the governing body of the sport in Europe, has introduced a new third-tier competition, which they haven’t organized since the last edition of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup in 1998-99. An idea that’s been in the works since 2015, it’s finally going to be upon us for more European football.
Introducing the UEFA Europa Conference League.
I can already probably guess the question you’re asking.
Okay, so we have both the Champions League and the Europa League, two of the biggest club football tournaments in the world, let alone in Europe. What could possibly be the point of this new competition?
Well, if you follow European football closely, you probably know this, but for those who don’t, here’s the reality of the European game. Look through each Champions League Final and the countries that the teams represent. This year was France (Paris Saint-Germain) against Germany (Bayern Munich). Last year was an all-English final (Liverpool v Tottenham). For the five years preceding, the tournament was won by Spanish clubs. Going back even further? The winners came from Germany, England, Spain, Italy, Spain again, England, and Spain again.
Notice a trend?
The most powerful football countries on the continent, those five just mentioned, dominate the competition. Every year. Only a few times throughout history will one see the likes of the Netherlands or Scotland being represented by a club in arguably the biggest game in club football.
The Europa League is no exception to this trend, either. For the last nine years, the winner has either come from England or Spain, and the other three countries (along with the few exceptions of Portugal, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, all of whom are almost on par with the “big five”) have been represented several times in the final.
The point is, European football is dominated by only the most powerful associations on the continent.
The UEFA Europa Conference League, however, is planned by UEFA to be fought for by lower ranked associations, such as Denmark, Greece, and Hungary, whose clubs often do not succeed in the other competitions apart from occasional first-round appearances in the knockout phase. The new competition gives clubs from these nations a platform to succeed in European competition, where otherwise they’d have an extremely tough time going against clubs the size of Real Madrid, Juventus, and Bayern Munich.
This idea of allowing smaller countries and clubs to succeed in the continental game was also seen when UEFA introduced the Intertoto Cup, a defunct summer competition in which clubs that hadn’t qualified for the Champions League or UEFA Cup (the name the Europa League was known by before the name change in 2009). The aforementioned Cup Winners’ Cup was contested by teams who, well, won their domestic cup. Clubs like Lazio, who won the last edition in 1999, and RCD Mallorca, who lost in that year’s final, were serious contenders for that title, even though they were rarely, if ever, successful in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup, both of which many football analysts and fans agreed were harder to win than the Cup Winners’ Cup.
So we now have an idea of why UEFA have introduced this new tournament. But what does this mean for the other two competitions?
While the Conference League doesn’t really change anything about the Champions League, the Europa League will see some huge changes due to the new tournament. Because of the Europa Conference League, the Europa League will decrease from its current format of 48 teams to 32, just like the Champions League. Furthermore, similar to the way that the winners of the Europa League are automatically promoted to the Champions League group stage regardless of league standing, the winners of the Conference League are reserved an automatic place in next season’s Europa League group stage, unless of course they’re able to qualify for the Champions League via league placing.
This new club tournament comes along with many changes that the confederation has made in the last five years, along with expanding the European Championship to 24 teams rather than the previous 16, and adding the UEFA Nations League, a Champions League-style competition for national teams, to its list of tournaments. Regardless of the way you might see it, the new UEFA Europa Conference League is sure to be an entertaining spectacle for not only football fans, but sports fans in general.