On 13 May 1998, I attained one of my fondest memories of football. I watched Chelsea, a team for whom I’d only ever bore a slight soft spot for, lift the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, previously known as the European Cup Winners’ Cup, against VFB Stuttgart.
I think the appeal of Chelsea in that era was three-fold; they were a good team that never really managed to stage a sustained threat to Arsenal and Manchester United; they had the most high profile player-manager I can recall in the great Gianluca Vialli; and they had a certain little Italian wizard in their ranks, the unplayable Gianfranco Zola.
Chelsea weren’t a force in the Champions League like Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. They weren’t particularly a force in their own domestic league, with the likes of Newcastle, Liverpool and Leeds United outpacing them behind the tandem of Manchester United and Arsenal. The Cup Winners’ Cup gave them the chance to secure their own piece of glorious history, something rather different to anything else football had to offer. Watching Zola blast a strike past Stuttgart’s Austrian keeper Franz Wohlfahrt, and Vialli’s on-field celebration as teammate and boss to Zola, I was blown away by the magic of the tournament. It’s an event I hold up there in European football as I grew up with Zidane’s volley at Hampden and Manchester United’s outstanding comeback against Munich.
Chelsea were the penultimate winners of this tournament, with Lazio lifting the trophy for the final time at Villa Park in 1999. The tournament was subsequently abolished and merged with the UEFA Cup. The reason behind UEFA’s decision to deny the likes of Lazio, Chelsea, Real Zaragoza and Paris Saint-Germain a shot at the kind of glory they would otherwise not achieve was a lack of quality. As the Champions League was expanded and made more accessible for bigger clubs from bigger leagues, the quality of the Cup Winners’ Cup plummeted. The eight quarter-finalists in the 1998-99 tournament, the year of Chelsea’s success, were: Lokomotiv Moscow; Maccabi Haifa; Panionios; Lazio; Chelsea; Valerenga; Varteks; and Mallorca. Outside of Chelsea and Lazio, no one there would have caused much worry to the majority of the teams in the Champions League. With the four semi-finalists accumulating an aggregate winning margin of +17 between them, you can kind of see where UEFA were coming from.
Roughly two weeks ago, the story broke that UEFA President Michel Platini was entertaining the idea of abolishing the Europa League (the newly-fashioned UEFA Cup and indeed the place where the ‘history’ of the Cup Winners’ Cup resides) by 2016 to make room for a 64 team Champions League tournament. This new tournament structure would allow six places for teams from Europe’s biggest leagues, Spain, England and Germany, in the tournament. As dominance of different leagues’ teams continually shifts between Italy, Spain, and England, is there really a need to allow such leagues even greater dominance? Imagine a last 16 of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletico Madrid, Valencia, Milan, Inter, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Napoli, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. This doesn’t exactly coincide with Platini’s claim that such an expanded Champions League would give greater scope for teams from lesser nations, such as Belarus and Slovakia.
Platini’s motivation for the contemplation of this move is a financial one. UEFA’s secondary competition does not produce enough revenue to be considered sustainable, a revenue that is dwarfed by the money-press that is the Champions League. My main criticism of the Europa League, aside from the blatant and disgusting disrespect shown publicly by the likes of Harry Redknapp for this once-prestigious tournament, is that it is too like the Champions League in structure. The five-team groups made the tournament feel different to the Champions League, although the problem with what felt like 500 teams playing in the tournament was inescapable. Platini’s error was making the Europa League too much like the Champions League, instead of making it a tournament with a unique feel. Below are my ideas to freshen up the European landscape at the same time as paying homage to truly wonderful tournaments, with histories that match their once-glowing reputations.
- 1) The entry requirements for the Champions League must be narrowed. There is no reason for four teams from a single domestic league to be given access to the ‘Champions’ League whilst there are domestic leagues supplying only one or two teams. The top band of leagues, Spain, England, Germany, should be limited to two automatic places and one via playoff round, with all subsequent leagues following a tiered system of allocation similar to the current one. We’ve seen this season from APOEL’s resounding success that the so-called ‘diddy leagues’ can provide teams that are capable of producing a sustained presence at the top table. The Cypriot champions outlasted Manchester United in this season’s tournament. Need I go on?
- 2) The Europa League should be made open to two teams from the top 16 leagues, based on their coefficient, in Europe. This would be open to the teams that finished behind the Champions League places, so fourth and fifth in the Premier League and La Liga for instance. Teams beaten in Champions League qualifying rounds would be ineligible: they should not be rewarded for failing in their own tournament. Nor would winners of domestic cups be granted access, for as point 3) will explain, they will have their own business. These 32 teams would then be drawn into a two-legged elimination cup, the same structure of the Cup Winners’ Cup. The like of qualifying rounds, which are deliberately weighted in favour of bigger teams, is unnecessary and damaging to the spirit of true competition. Hibernian beating a Juventus or a Feyenoord to the Europa League would be the kind of thing a neutral would love to witness, and a fan would remember it for all their life. Naturally, the tournament would need to be renamed in the absence of anything resembling a league structure, and I see no reason against a return to the prestigious name of the UEFA Cup.
- 3) A return of the Cup Winners’ Cup is essential. As with the new UEFA Cup, the format should remain true to that of the old Cup Winners’ Cup: two-legged single elimination cup ties, from first round to semi-final. This tournament would be open to the domestic cup winners of each of the top 16 leagues, again based on their UEFA coefficient. When a cup winning team finish in a league position granting them access to either the Champions League or UEFA Cup, their Cup Winners' Cup spot then passes to the runner-up. If the runner-up is also in a European qualification spot, the spot then passes to the team beaten in the semi-final by the cups' winner. If the quantity of competing clubs is too low, the clear solution is to permit access to cup runners-up as well as winners. However, 32 teams would create a format too similar to the UEFA Cup, so I personally believe 16 teams is sufficient.
- 4) If Liverpool’s season has taught football fans anything this year, it is that Champions League participation is now seen to be more important than cup success. If Liverpool win the Carling Cup, the FA Cup, and finish 8th in the Premier League, their fans will decry their season as a failure because they didn’t qualify for Europe’s big tournament. We can bemoan this state of affairs for days, but it is the way it is. To provide incentive for clubs to surmount considerable challenges in the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup, four spots in the following season’s Champions League will be allocated to the four finalists of these two knockout tournaments. If there’s a situation of one of these four teams finishing in the Champions League spots in their domestic league, their extra spot should then go to the team they beat in the semi-final. This would ensure the prestige of the tournaments as well as creating great incentive for success in them.
Instead of narrowing European competition into a single, vast plane, Platini needs to open it up and bring back the three glory-laden tournaments that made participation in UEFA domestic tournaments such an honour for so many clubs.