Ever since it was called the UEFA Cup and before that the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, there has been something strange about this competition. What does it mean to win it? If you win the league, it means you are the best club in your country. If you win the Champions League, you are the best club in the continent. Even the FA Cup and its equivalents in each nation have a romance about it because they open the doors of glory to lower-league teams and because it will always be won by the only team who never lost a tie in the competition. The old Cup-winners’ Cup then took this demanding and thrilling format into a European context.
But the UEFA Cup meant... what? If you hear, for example, that Real Madrid won in back to back in 1985 and 86, you instantly think that if they were playing it, it means they weren’t good enough to play in the big brother, the European Cup. So, all the UEFA Cup has ever meant is: you’re the best… of the rest. Keep at it and maybe soon you’ll be allowed at the grown-ups’ table.
Well then, why not do that exactly? A team who has ‘kept at it’ for a whole season through good matches and bad, all kinds of weather, injuries, rotations, constant travelling and the inevitable sense of futility is always going to be a decent team. Look at the list of recent winners and you'll find Sevilla, Valencia, Porto, Liverpool, etc. Many of them, like also Shakhtar and CSKA Moscow, have actually gone on to star in the Champions League after those UEFA Cup trophies. It would finally give the competition a reason to be: a promotion to the big stage.
Maybe UEFA have never wanted to label the Europa League so clearly as a de facto Second European Division, but that’s what it has always been, and everyone knows about it. Eligibility for it starts only after the Champions League has picked off the best clubs, and if a team finds themselves with invitations for both parties (such as winning the Cup and finishing second in one of the best leagues), they will be attending the one labelled ‘Champions’.
In fact, we already have a relegation phase from one to the other (when eight teams drop down from the Champions League to the Europa League every December), so why not have a promotion for just one deserving team? ? And I don’t mean a place in a qualifying round, I mean a place straight into the 32 teams in the group stage. Giving the winner of the Europa League a place at the Champions League would energise club football in the whole continent like you wouldn't believe.
Look at this year’s semi-finalists, meeting this week. Three of them (Liverpool, Hamburg and Atlético de Madrid) are European royalty who are all very probably going to miss on qualification for the Champions League via their own championships this season. The same could happen to already-eliminated Juventus. How thrilling would it be for spectators to see one of them rescued from that predicament? It would instantly give these semifinals, and especially the final, a wonderful dramatic setting.
As for the other team, Fulham, they represent all those other clubs who are in the situation of being eternally blocked from accessing the top competition by domestic rivals who are just too strong for them every year. From Málaga to Oslo, and from Edinburgh to Trabzon, first division teams throughout the continent suddenly wouldn’t feel trapped under the weight of the immovable big fish, and would always have a shot at a Champions League place via the Europa League.
The 2001 and 2006 finalists, Alavés and Middlesbrough, are now in their countries’ second divisions. 2007 finalists Espanyol have never been in the top European competition either. How are teams like these not going to try and squeeze all they can from their European campaigns, when the reward could be so big? Gone would be all the moaning about trips in late midweek and about having to put up with second billing for attention. Even travelling fans would have a renewed sense of purpose.
And if the Europa League is won by a team who also gets access to the Champions League, like Shakhtar did last year, no problem: give that ticket back to UEFA and there will be an extra place for traditional qualifiers. In fact, the Europa League could be a gigantic qualifying group for the next Champions League, one that would capture the attention of dozens of teams and millions of fans.
It still wouldn´t be easy. You need a season good enough to qualify for the Europa League and then another season with a run brilliant enough to win it, frequently having to dodge a Juventus falling off the big table. But Fulham did it. Many other teams in the Champions League can’t say the same thing.
One small change, one big and positive effect. Can anyone think of a reason NOT to do it?