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.
Mar 27, 2015, 11:35 PM EDT
Roundup of Euro 2016 qualifying matches from Saturday.
Mar 27, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Both Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling will most likely be out of England’s friendly vs. Italy on Tuesday.
Mar 27, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT
Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahmovic buries a strange one.
Mar 27, 2015, 8:20 PM EDT
England trounced Lithuania 4-0 in a Euro qualifier for their seventh-straight win since the World Cup, and captain Wayne Rooney likes what future lies ahead for his country.
Mar 27, 2015, 6:42 PM EDT
22-year-old Ventura Alvarado asserts that he would like to play for USMNT in the long term.
Mar 27, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT
Manager Chris Coleman say Gareth Bale is only focused on the Wales’ “job in hand.”
Mar 27, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT
Suarez doesn’t think he could be classified as hooligan after his biting incidents.
Mar 27, 2015, 3:45 PM EDT
The New England Revolution have been on the losing end early in the season before.
Mar 27, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
No first cap just yet for Kane, though he’s expected to come off the bench in the second half.
Mar 27, 2015, 1:27 PM EDT
A resounding result for the 2016 Olympics hopefuls, away from home.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:18 PM EDT
Stoke City are on the verge of their first-ever top-10 finish in the Premier League, and Mark Hughes has been rewarded for his success.
Mar 27, 2015, 11:04 AM EDT
Another bitter injury blow for Juventus, who now have just one fit, first-team central midfielder.
Mar 27, 2015, 10:11 AM EDT
Lampard is in the Big Apple, where he’ll spend time with his future teammates and watch them play Sporting KC.
Mar 27, 2015, 8:25 AM EDT
With a six-point lead in the league (and a game in hand), do Chelsea really need a “blessing in disguise” to win this year’s Premier League title?
Mar 27, 2015, 8:03 AM EDT
A star-depleted (international duty) Week 4 of MLS should still provide lots of entertainment and quality.
Mar 26, 2015, 11:30 PM EDT
If punditry doesn’t work for Scholes, sign him up as Man United’s top player recruiter. At least he aims high.
Mar 26, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Watch in 90 seconds the construction of Avaya Stadium, from Day 1 to Game 1.
Mar 26, 2015, 7:17 PM EDT
Another month out for Sturridge, just when Liverpool’s top-four dreams rest on his shoulders the most.
Mar 26, 2015, 6:54 PM EDT
You couldn’t get this one anymore wrong, UEFA. 10-times worse than racism? Not OK.
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