Europe’s second-most prestigious club competition has long been dealing with an identity crisis, but guaranteed Champions League qualification for the teams that contest the Europa League final would go some distance in addressing the latter’s credibility conundrum.
The influential European Clubs Association tends to agree.
In a statement published Tuesday on its official website the ECA, which represents some of the most prominent clubs from UEFA’s 53 member associations, revealed that 61 percent of respondents to an internal survey “would welcome” offering “direct access” to the Champions League Group Stage to the winner and runner-up of the Europa League.
Such an arrangement, if previously used, would have seen Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao go into the Group Stage draw last August, and it would have opened the door for sides such as Inter Milan, Liverpool and Bordeaux—none of whom currently hold down a Champions League place—to target Champions League football through the Europa League over the next few months.
According to a Press Association report published in the Independent, UEFA president Michel Platini has promised to consider the survey’s findings, and if the data meets his approval implementation could occur as soon as 2015. It would be a decision that would bring continental football in line with the organic, pyramid structure of most domestic club football.
For example, one of the carrots dangled at the end of England’s League Cup is entry into the Europa League. Liverpool won the trophy last season, so despite a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Premier League they were granted a European campaign for 2012-13. And that’s a good thing.
One of the characteristics that sets football apart from other major sports is this notion of upward, and downward, mobility. It’s obviously made possible by the fact that clubs in most leagues are independently owned and operated separately from the league office—they are not franchised—but the idea that a club can progress up the status ladder by winning promotions and competitions is a feature of the sport that should be celebrated.
And it’s an idea that would be especially useful in the context of the Europa League, which is a tournament that struggles for meaning at the best of times. A bridge from its final to the Champions League would serve to remedy some of that—it would attach an element of significance to the title far beyond what is currently the case. What team, after all, seriously aspires to be the champion of a European competition whose title does not actually make them European champions? But add a berth in the Champions League Group Stage and there’s suddenly some cachet, nevermind incentive.
No doubt a section of purists would prefer to see the Europa League abolished altogether, or at least reformed into a straight knockout competition. But given the ECA survey’s additional results—75 per cent of respondents “expressed their ‘satisfaction' or ‘extreme satisfaction’ with the current structure/format of UEFA’s club competitions”—such changes are simply not going to happen.
For now, it seems, a passage from the Europa League to the Champions League is the bravest path the ECA is willing to take. But in taking it they’ll at least in part ensure the Europa League’s existential problem is dealt with.