UEFA Conference League creates shocks and opportunities for small European clubs


The announcement of the UEFA Europa Conference League (ECL) was not unanimously welcomed.

The third tier tournament for European football clubs, first revealed by UEFA in December 2018, would make the continent’s club competitions “more inclusive”, has promised UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin.

“Giving clubs and fans the chance to dream and compete for European honors,” he said.

As the competition’s inaugural year approached, he was more ridiculed than revered.

When Tottenham Hotspur finished seventh in the Premier League, qualifying for the ECL, there were jokes, memes and suggestions that the club would rather not play in Europe at all.

This is just the start, but so far the competition has got off to a more encouraging start than many might have expected.

Yesterday, teams from across Europe faced each other in the second round second leg of a confusing qualification process which sees 163 teams reduced to 22. 10 other teams then join the group stage.

Some of the teams involved are said to be unknown even to the most avid fan of European football. Which makes some of the stories of the underdog even more compelling.

A former winner of the European Cup (Champions League), FCSB (formerly Steaua Bucharest), were eliminated from the competition on penalties. The club that beat him, Football Club Shakhter, are currently 11th in the Kazakhstan Premier League.

Another former European champion, Dutch giant Feyenoord, needed a 90th-minute winner to beat FC Drita Kosovo.

FCSB weren’t the only famous club to tumble. Greek club AEK Athens lost in aggregate to Velež of Bosnia and Herzegovina. BATE Borisov, who reached the Champions League group stage four times in the past 10 years, fell to Georgia’s Dinamo Batumi.

Austria Vienna, another team that played Champions League football recently, were beaten by Icelandic club Breidablik. Hajduk Split, one of Croatia’s best-known clubs, lost to Tobol from Kazakhstan, thanks to a winner in the 118th minute in overtime.

Irish clubs have also achieved excellent results. The fan-owned Bohemians won to organize a third round draw with Greek Cup holders PAOK. The win earns the club € 550,000 in prize money before ticketing revenues from a sold-out match (albeit with reduced capacity).

Northern Irish club Larne FC managed another surprise by beating Danish side AGF Aarhus. Larne will face Portugal’s Paços de Ferreira in the next round, which takes place on August 5 and 12.

Speaking after Larne’s first-round victory, chairman Kenny Bruce said the impact of the club’s very first taste of European competition was “absolutely huge”.

“It has been a remarkable run over the past four seasons and now to be in this new European tournament is fantastic,” he said. The Guardian.

“It gives teams from smaller nations the opportunity to progress further and galvanize their supporters as they support a European campaign. It’s a competition against very competitive teams and it helps us grow our club and give back. more to the community based on the funds we can earn.

The spotlight is so often on Europe’s biggest and wealthiest clubs that ECL is a rare chance for smaller clubs to get screen time. A third round victory sets up a potential lucrative meeting with Spurs in the playoff round.

UEFA’s decision-making is of course not always perfect.

The ECL does not use it in a format that is difficult to follow, at least in these qualifying rounds. In the later stages, allowing teams to join after being eliminated from the Europa League seems a bit unfair. As is the case when teams eliminated from the Champions League join the Europa League.

But there are business considerations, and even in this tournament designed to help ‘minnows’, the sponsors and the public want at least some big fish.

Suggestions that teams don’t want to play in the tournament and aren’t too worried about being knocked out are only relevant if they can afford it. Spurs, and perhaps Serie A’s only representative AS Roma, could argue that without the extra midweek games they might have a better chance of finishing better in their respective leagues. They could qualify for the Europa League or the richer Champions League next season.

But for the majority of clubs involved in the ECL, cash winnings and ticketing revenue are a big boost at a time when finances have been strained by the Covid-19 pandemic. Teams that reach the group stage are guaranteed a cash prize of € 3million – a relatively small change for Spurs or Roma, potentially huge for some of the others.

Big clubs may well see competition as a downside that is best avoided or at least not taken too seriously. But European football is more than the biggest clubs.

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