Do you remember when European matches involved 'trips to hell'? When teams were forced to take on a nation's animosity in one game? When a worthy champion emerged because they came through it? No? Iain Macintosh would like to say a few words.
Ah, the Europa League. The entertainment vacuum of modern football. If the first half of the Champions League is a dull, drawn out procession of wealth and vanity, then how shall we describe its little brother? A competition so dull that watching it makes you want to pull your eyeballs out and fill the vacant sockets with vinegar just so that you have something to talk about at work the next day? Yep, that just about sums it up.
Preliminary rounds. Group stages. A knock-out stage violated by the forced entry of a job-lot of Champions League failures. So many bloody games that by the time you reach the semi-finals, you’re praying for a passing truck to mow you down on the way home just so that warm embrace of death takes you before Jim Rosenthal does. It’s a soul-crushing, brain-sapping, sanity-twisting exhibition of mediocrity. It’s a dead mouse in a loaf of bread. It’s a particularly sonorous fart in a lift. It’s bad and it hurts.
If I were a manager, I’d pull my team out before it started or play the youth team like Tottenham and Sheffield Wednesday did in the early days of that other UEFA packaged turd sandwich of a competition, the Intertoto Cup. There’s barely any money in it, just a lot of travel and a needless distraction from the domestic competitions. And so what if you win? Liverpool lifted it in 2001 but it hasn’t exactly secured a place for Gerard Houllier in their fans’ affections. If Fulham had won it last year, it might have been different, but they didn’t. They were cock-blocked by a side who’d only won three games in Europe all season and didn’t even enter until the Cottagers had played ten matches. Ten! That’s more than a quarter of a Premier League campaign!
Michel Platini must know that it’s crap. He’s not stupid. He must be aware that there’s no tension, no excitement and no point in tuning in. It’s a sop. A fudge. A grotty halfway house in a gloomy alleyway somewhere between The Good Old Days and a grim, dystopian view of a pan-European future. He’s got to insert revenue heavy group stages into every competition. He’s forced to leave escape tunnels for the elite for fear that they will stamp their feet and storm off to form their own Super League. You know what? If I were him, I’d let them.
The hilarious thing about the oft-mooted European Super League is that none of the clubs pushing for it seem to realise that they might not win it. Or even come close to winning it. If the 20 ‘biggest’ clubs on the continent formed their own hideously over-branded, dribbling abortion of a competition, then someone’s got to come bottom. I’m almost certain that the founders would pull the ladder up behind them, banning relegation to forever preserve their status, but that would make it even worse. Imagine season upon season of wretched misery with no prospect of a great escape at the end.
More and more people discover football every day and many of them fall in love with it the same way that we did. But quite a few of them don’t. Lots of people pick a successful club and then live vicariously off their glory. When it all goes titsy, they wander off to cling to something else. How many poor seasons will it take for them to lose interest, bearing in mind that there will be no chase for fourth and no relegation dog-fight? How full will the stands be for a dead rubber between Chelsea and Roma? Or Manchester United and Lyon? How long will the TV stations pay the big bucks? At what point do domestic contenders become the continental equivalent of Wigan? No offence, Wigan fans.
We’re not stupid. We’re not going to pay for rubbish. Some cruel wags on the internet were poking fun at Manchester City for only attracting 35,000 to their listless encounter with Juventus. Frankly, I’m amazed they got that many. It could all be so different if we just went back to one big unseeded free-for-all where every first leg and most of the second ones count. But that won’t ever happen. There’s only one direction this is going.
The Europa League is a crappy competition. The only thing that worries me is the crappy competition ‘they’ might have planned to replace it…
Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper (Singapore). You can follow him on Twitter (@iainmacintosh)