Why the Europa Conference League matters more than the Champions (sic) league


Philosophy Football's  Mark Perryman  ponders a week of European Finals 

For anyone wondering if the Europa League matters I suggest asking Jose Mourinho, who last week found himself on the losing side in the competition's final. And as for this supposed poor relation's poor relation, The Europa Conference League, West Ham fans will tell precisely the scale of it mattering once they've fully recovered from celebrating Wednesday's victory.

But come Saturday night all of this will be condemned to pale insignificance with the Champions League Final heaped upon us. Should it?  

First off, its not the Champions League, its the Champions and runners-up league, or to be strictly accurate to give the competition its full, if unofficial, title, 'The Champions and Rich Runners-up League'.  When the competition was founded in 1992 it was with the express intent to create a cartel, to protect the interests of the biggest leagues - Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga - and the richest clubs therein.  The  predecessor, the vastly superior European Cup, failed to do this, champions only, and a knockout competition with no seeding left them vulnerable to being knocked out in the first round, my heart bleeds, its called 'the luck of the draw'.  

Second, despite the brilliant fans' opposition to the European Super League, dumping the self-interest of their own clubs for the greater cause of a fair and equal competition, the Champions League drive to cartelisation continues unabated. Champions plus up to 3 runners-up creates a them and us top division. Group stage and seeding simply exacerbate, while the forthcoming transformation of the competition into effectively into a mid-week league completes the process, not that the greed will stop there. 

Third, Despite Marseille's win in 1993 and Mourinho's Porto win in 2004 there's not a single surprise amongst the list of all the other Champions League winners. The chances of a repeat of Brian Clough's back-to-back 1979 and 1980 European Cups with Nottingham Forest, unarguably the greatest achievement of any English club manager and team, next to zero, or for any plucky outsiders from across Europe, such as Celtic's win as Scottish Champions in '67, either.

So dreadfully predictable?  More or less. However, the vast petro-dollar riches underpinning Paris Saint Germain hasn't got them their most sought-after trophy yet, just to prove that economic determinism doesn't always triumph on the pitch.  Whether Manchester City can usher in a period of continental dominance to follow their domination of football domestically, we haven't long to wait and see.  

But, p'raps unwittingly (almost certainly so) the Champions League behemoth has opened up beneath it a more plural, equitable version of European football.  Before the Champions League era there was the Cup-Winners Cup, in England the FA Cup winners qualified, and the UEFA Cup that in 'old money' the League Cup winners qualified for too.  The Cup Winners Cup was abolished, the League Cup no longer offers a European place. This seemed to close off Europe for less fancied teams who'd proved themselves to be 'up for the Cup'.  The likes of Wigan and Portsmouth, Swansea and Birmingham City. But such wins now are now next to non-existent. The Cups won by the same-old-same-old big six clubs with a squad extending to a second team stuffed full of first-choice internationals, and thus able to sustain cup runs alongside the all-important race for the Champions League spots.  Meanwhile such are the riches of the Premier League almost every Championship club come January prioritise league over cup, and in the hope of joining that promotion race a year hence too, most League One clubs (the Orwellian renaming of what clearly is the second and third divisions the subject of a future critique) doing likewise.

Thus, even if those European competitions had remained as the prize for cup success few if any clubs outside the Premier League big six would have qualified (losing cup finalists have almost all been from the big six clubs too). 

However, the Europa and Europa Conference Leagues have opened up such an opportunity. The impact of which is best represented by Aston Vila's last home game, versus Brighton and Hove Albion as each club's fans serenaded the other lot with 'We're all going on a European Tour.

OK Liverpool, after a failed attempt to grab the fourth and final Champions League spot made it into the Europa League, but Villa, relegation candidates as the New Year began, Brighton who'd never qualified for Europe before, this really meant something, And Brentford had been in with more than a sniff too. And not so long ago Leicester (twice) Wolves, Burnley, Middlesbrough (twice), Southampton (twice), Stoke have made it in too.

Plus the imaginative topping up of the trophy win with promotion to the next level of European football means West Ham are now guaranteed to play in Europe for the third season in succession, something even Bobby Moore's 1965 Cup-Winners Cup-Winning West Ham side didn't achieve.

And while only Porto from outside Europe's major leagues is yet to win either trophy it is the major league fair to middlin' sides of West Ham's kind of stature that have triumphed; Sevilla, Eintracht Frankfurt, Roma and the like. And in this instance the group stage format enable clubs outside these major leagues to sustain their interest in playing in Europe too. Will all this add up to an upending of European football's inequalities. Nope. But it does at least give a glimmer of hope for those who qualify neither as Champions nor rich runners-up. Enough to put a smile on faces painted claret, blue or otherwise. 



 Philosophy Football's limited edition West Ham Europa Conference League Winners shirt is available here 



Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, the self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction and pioneer of the Football, Culture and Community module at the University of Brighton.