When UEFA announced a new third-tier competition late in 2018, many were palpably puzzled. The reaction then to the Europa Conference League was unreceptive, as most were skeptical of it. There were few signs that its first season would garner praise. Once Bodo-Glimt had harassed Roma, the eventual 6-1 winners, we became convinced that the detractors of the Conference League were now in defence of it.
It is a change of opinion that the tournament has earned, putting “lesser” clubs in the spotlight for a fresher, more unpredictable European climate. Nearly every critique that was originally thrown at the Conference League’s way was swatted aside.
Viewership numbers have been solid, especially for a newborn competition lacking the prestige of the Champions League or the alternative appeal of the Europa League. The final between Roma and Feyenoord last week was watched by roughly 3.3 million viewers, with the TV dominance understandably in Italy and Holland. The Conference League has broadcaster deals in several countries, which will not only keep it financially viable, but these numbers also assist the smaller clubs, providing them with enough prize money and sponsorship benefits that they would otherwise never see in more difficult tournaments.
However, this comes with a caveat. Without the bigger clubs competing in it, the revenue which relative minnows receive would be less. Teams in the top leagues receive the least spots in the tournament, maintaining its core principle of giving smaller nations a spotlight, but they are the biggest contributors to the Conference League being financially reliable.
The Conference League’s qualities are evident on the pitch as well. Matchups are closer than ever, which means most of the team who reached the group stage had hopes of competing. If they didn’t have that, they had the refreshing feeling of prestige of being involved with the big teams from the larger leagues. Look no further than the Lincoln Red Imps, whose most noteworthy moment before entering the Conference League group stage was humiliating Celtic with a 1-0 victory in a qualifying series in which they lost 4-1. Kevin Parody is a former Imps player who helped build the team’s facilities in 1980 and had the envied joy of seeing his club score the competition’s first-ever goal when Roy Chipolina scored against Slovan Bratislava.
“We went wild here, and to be going into the very first Europa Conference League, to be there at the birth of the competition, it was incredible,” Parody said. “I don’t have the words to describe it.”
The opposition for Leicester in the new playoff round were Danish outfit Randers FC. Much like the Imps, they had never experienced group stage football and the team felt the “whole city was proud” of their achievement. Different clubs measure success in different measures, but one positive assurance from the Conference League is that it guarantees bright spots for all participants.
Yet, there is an underlying problem that’s likely to escalate as we get used to the Conference League. Give it a few seasons, but the issue of disparity could creep into this tournament, where its unpredictability is one of its best qualities. Down the line, the teams who consistently make it there will ultimately start to pull away atop their respective leagues. It is tailored towards smaller nations, giving teams there a deserving spotlight with the incentive of a lucrative prize pool. Still, they could quickly become monopolies thanks to the funds, turning the Conference League into a closed shop.
The genuine reason UEFA strung along a third-tier competition was to promote underdogs and provide a surprise factor that has become lacking in the Champions League. At its essence, the Conference League is the solution to the problem they created. Ever since being phased into football, Financial Fair Play has made the sport more unfair, tipping the scale in the elite’s favor. Even then, Roma were heavily tipped to win it from the start, buoyed by Jose Mourinho’s stellar record in finals.
Roma mainly have Mourinho to thank for ending their 60-year European trophy drought, as well as their first silverware at all in 14 years. For Mourinho, it marks a clean sweep of European trophies, further ingraining his legacy as one of all-time greats of football managers. In the final’s post-match interview, Mourinho mused that “Winning is very difficult. You need many ingredients”.
The Portuguese is far from alone in this sentiment. Spurs boss Antonio Conte has had a managerial career converse to Jose’s, as European success continues to allude him. He commented in March that winning in England is easier than winning in Europe. Mourinho may not be inclined to agree, but it is true that winning in European competitions has never been easier for the elite.
You have to go back to the 2003-04 Porto team to find the last club outside the big five leagues (England, Italy, Spain, Germany, and France) to earn continental glory in the Champions League. In the foreseeable future, it would take a miracle for this to occur again. Ajax won all their group games in last season’s Champions League, making them viewed as potential upsets to make a deep run in the knockout round that ultimately left them tossed out by Benfica in the round of 16. Eventual finalists Liverpool eased past them in the most predictable matchup from the quarterfinals. It is a shame on how lopsided top-level football has become, but it is what UEFA has adapted to.
Still, it justifies its existence for now by throwing in some entertainment buoyed by the X-factor of not having a definitive winner for every round. Unpredictability causes excitement, which gets fans into stadiums. Higher attendance means more revenue for clubs who deserve a boost in cash. As a result, higher revenue is directly corelated with a healthier balance of competition by the elite teams.
It is not a long-term solution to European soccer’s parity problem, nor does one exist without augmenting the American aspects of drafts and wage caps into the sport. However, the Conference League is a lovely antidote to the cynicism that has festered in football for far too long.