May 15, 2013, 6:04 PM EDT
Many of Europa League’s problems were laid bare on Wednesday, and while moments after the tournament’s high point seem an ill-opportune time to address those concerns, there aren’t many other points on the calendar when we’re willing to consider Europa. For many teams in the competition – small clubs in top-heavy leagues that have little chance of ever making Champions League — it’s a great tournament, one that gives them opportunities, opponents, and exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. And UEFA tosses in some money, too. For other teams, however, the tournament is a conciliatory obligation, one in which they’re used as a pawn to enhance the competition’s spurious legitimacy.
Thus was have today’s final. Chelsea was only in it because they flamed out of Champions League. Same with Benfica, who didn’t have Chelsea’s excuse of having played in a difficult group. They failed to beat out Celtic for the knockout round spot from their Champions League group. Why would anybody create a competition where two of fall’s underachievers are competing for honors in the spring?
If you’re reading this site, that’s probably not news to you, but as you see the likes of John Terry and Rafa Benítez celebrate today’s win, keep their accomplishment in perspective. Today was a battle between two teams for whom Europa League will never be a preseason goal. This, as the abused yet accurate metaphor explains, is to European soccer what the National Invitational Tournament is to NCAA basketball. Since everybody – from the fans, to the coaches, to the players – knows it’s “the other tournament,” the stakes are never going to justify the pomp.
That attitude was apparent through most of today’s match. Yes, it was very entertaining at the end – 10 minutes of back-and-forth action that almost talked you into an extra 30 – but for most of the day, the match was drab. Benfica’s midfield controlled much of it. Chelsea didn’t care. A goal off a long ball; a penalty kick – it wasn’t exactly captivating stuff. Though the tactical battle in the midfield added a somewhat cerebral (or, philosophical) element to the game, that intrigue was undermined by a lack of intensity. Call it cagey, if you want, but it was still a problem, one that was only corrected in the final moments.
All of which goes back to the competition’s main problems. Not enough teams that care about it, especially those which are relegated to it from Champions League. And when those teams enter the competition in the Round of 32, they are often superior to those competing in group stage, creating a continuity issue that begs potential viewers to discard the tournament’s initial rounds and only invest once the apathy.
Those favorites aren’t apathetic forever. Eventually, they convince themselves there’s something in winning a trophy. They delude themselves into believing an honor they didn’t care about six months earlier is worth the champagne and theatrics. I still don’t understand the psychosis behind this.
If Chelsea and Benfica weren’t today’s finalists, we might have seen a more spirited game – a contest between two sides that didn’t have to come to terms with their newly deflated status. If Europa League were left to those teams who could really use the competition – those who aren’t in Champions League and aren’t likely to get their any time soon – we could see sides that treat this match like an honor.
So give this tournament to the teams that want it. No more Champions League back doors, and no more looking toward the occasional big name entrant as a way to raise the competition’s profile. It’s more important to have compelling matches in a tournament with competitive integrity. While that means we might not have a club of Chelsea’s profile in the final, we may, in the long run, end up with a competition capable of earning a profile of its own.
Jul 28, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT
Legendary French midfielder is red-hot favorite to replace Blatter.
Jul 28, 2015, 12:35 PM EDT
Can the Eagles surprise everyone again? With Cabaye running the show, don’t rule it out.
Jul 28, 2015, 11:25 AM EDT
The latest gossip includes a cryptic message from Benzema.
Jul 28, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
Mourinho: “In my opinion he should be in the top three.”
Jul 28, 2015, 9:54 AM EDT
England international has been ripping it up for City in preseason.
Jul 28, 2015, 9:20 AM EDT
Mourinho’s men are hungry for trophies. All of them.
Jul 28, 2015, 8:15 AM EDT
Putin: “People like Mr Blatter deserve special recognition.”
Jul 27, 2015, 9:45 PM EDT
The Premier League’s big boys each play once more in the USA before heading back to England for the start of the new season.
Jul 27, 2015, 8:39 PM EDT
Afellay makes four ex-Blaugranas on the books at Stoke, where Mark Hughes is aiming for European qualification.
Jul 27, 2015, 7:56 PM EDT
As Bayern chase their fourth straight Bundesliga title (it would be a first), Mats Hummels says the league’s other teams need to stop fearing them.
Jul 27, 2015, 6:06 PM EDT
Drogba has arrived in MLS, and he even got to choose which team he’ll play for — kinda.
Jul 27, 2015, 5:15 PM EDT
Cyle Larin bagged his first pro hat trick on Sunday, somehow outshining David Villa at Yankee Stadium.
Jul 27, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
Villa, Giovinco, Finlay and more — this week’s MLS Team of the Week.
Jul 27, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
The first of three newly promoted sides, do the Cherries have what it takes to stay in the Premier League?
Jul 27, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT
JPW dissects the top deals, discusses which clubs have done the best business and which need to get a shift on.
Jul 27, 2015, 1:43 PM EDT
Plenty of preseason action continues out in the Far East.
Jul 27, 2015, 12:50 PM EDT
Can Sherwood rejuvenate Villa and show progress is being made? Losing Benteke and Delph will hurt his chances of doing that.
Jul 27, 2015, 12:02 PM EDT
Here are the latest rumors from around the soccer world.
Jul 27, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT
SWP and BWP in MLS for RBNY.
Jul 27, 2015, 10:20 AM EDT
El Tri boss could be in a lot of trouble if these reports are true.
- Tuesday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup: Benzema to Arsenal, Berahino to Tottenham 1
- Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Chelsea 1
- Russian president Vladimir Putin believes Sepp Blatter deserves Nobel Prize 6
- Monday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup: PSG’s $133 million Ronaldo bid, Stones to Chelsea 2
- Amid reports of journalist brawl, Mexico boss Miguel Herrera looks ahead to USMNT showdown 9
- Manchester United lack creativity to challenge top clubs, says Louis van Gaal 6