Why the Europa League matters
DUBLIN -- In London, tickets for next weekend's Champions League final are changing hands for up to 2,000 pounds. Three hundred miles to the northwest in Dublin, the site of Wednesday's Europa League final, tickets are being sold for around face value. If the main lure of the Champions League over the Europa League final is all about the difference in revenue, it is certainly reflected in the prices fans are willing to pay.
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Granted, there is a huge difference between the two games. The Champions League final will see England's most successful side, Manchester United, against a team widely considered one of the best of all time, Barcelona. The Europa League final is a clash between the first- and fourth-place teams in the Portuguese league, Porto and Braga. It's certainly not the contest many were hoping for. Tickets were originally put on sale to Ireland residents in December. Liverpool, still in the competition at that stage, would have been a hugely popular draw in Ireland, but its limp 1-0 defeat to Braga at the quarterfinal stage ended that dream.
The British Isles might be the worst place for the final of this competition. Ireland has a league of its own, of course, but the main focus is on Premier League football. In the EPL, there's such a feeling of apathy toward the Europa League that some fans of Liverpool and Tottenham are hoping their sides don't qualify for it next season. When it emerged this week that Fulham is on course for a Europa League spot via the fair play league, some suggested that its players might be better off picking a couple of red cards in their final-day fixture against Arsenal.
It's easy to see why the Europa League gets a bad rap. It's a bloated competition that features too many matches. Fulham's run to the final last season was the second-longest campaign in the history of European football -- 19 games, which is exactly half of an entire Premier League season. By the end of Fulham's campaign, the players were exhausted, despite being rested for league matches. Bobby Zamora limped through the semis and final, and was so fatigued he had to rule himself out of the World Cup.
Supporters also object to the fact that post-Europa League matches are pushed back to Sunday. While it might give the side more time to recover from Thursday's Europa League game, it also creates an inconvenient kickoff time in the EPL.
And, of course, the Europa League offers a very poor financial return. The side that wins the competition will receive about one-third as much as a team that qualifies for the Champions League group stage.
Outside of England -- and probably Italy and Spain, too -- the competition is popular. With interleague inequality across Europe having increased to a staggering degree, it's no longer possible for sides from smaller countries to challenge in Europe's main competition. Indeed, with England, Italy, Spain and Germany now taking up almost half of the Champions League group stage positions, it's extremely difficult for a side from, say, Poland to even qualify.
Instead, they have to rely on the Europa League for cash, and clubs from smaller leagues earn comparatively good figures from the competition. Lech Poznan -- most famous for its fan celebration against Manchester City when the sides clashed in the group stage, a celebration the Sky Blues have since adopted -- is estimated to have earned around 30 percent of its annual revenue from the Europa League.
For this reason, any potential reform of the competition must fully take into account the interests of the smaller leagues in Europe. Football is increasingly structured according to what the big sides want, but as long as most of the continent sees the value in the competition, the ire of Liverpool, Tottenham or Manchester City is meaningless. But it's not -- because the Europa League needs those clubs to compete in order to retain some level of prestige, which in turn helps boost TV ratings and attendance.
It's often proposed that a Champions League place should be offered to the winners of the Europa League to give more incentive to win the competition. It's worth remembering, however, that a good European campaign for sides across a country can benefit its Champions League hopes in the long run, as demonstrated perfectly by Portugal this season.
Going into the final two games of the European season, Portugal leads the UEFA country coefficient with 18.400 points, ahead of England with 18.357 and Spain with 17.928, and, more importantly, ahead of its rivals Holland with 11.166, Russia with 10.916 and Ukraine with 10.083. The outcome of all this statistical jargon? Portugal will have an extra place in the Champions League in 2012-13 -- three instead of two -- and more cash coming in because of efforts in the Europa League this season. If individual clubs can't get enthusiastic about the competition themselves, the leagues across Europe might need to encourage them.
Regardless of whether Porto or Braga emerges victorious Wednesday, Portuguese football will be the winner.
It's a little strange that Portugal leads the way. In December, with both Braga and Benfica knocked out of the Champions League at the group phase, it looked like being a poor year for Portuguese football. Still, that simply shows that there's more to European football than the Champions League, regardless of what clubs from the "big" leagues think.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.
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