In bestowing relevance to the Europa League’s First Qualifying Round, which commenced on the Thursday evening (June 29th) upon my initiation of the weekly blog-writing process, UEFA’s – and therefore Europe’s – footballing calendar restarted this week in its standardly inconspicuous obscurity and mystique. For some nations – those in Scandinavia, whose domestic season runs according to the severity of Nordic winters, for example – such reboots of the same tired schedule will have hardly felt significant, but for the larger, more temperate, of Europe’s territories, whose citizens have lacked considerable action for a number of weeks now, this week marks the sleepy recommencement of the two-tiered continental tournament establishment that endears such frenzied popularity come the point of the knockout stages within another six months, and therefore commands respect and attention even in its primary stages. While the cream of even the most minor of domestic divisions gather for their Second Qualifying Round matches, and First Qualifying Round second legs, in some cases, in the Champions League, then, the runners-up, third-placed and fourth-placed teams, in addition to cup winners in a few examples, from nations as obscure, in respects of European football heritage, as Lithuania, Montenegro, Moldova and Malta, are criss-crossing much of the 10.18 million km² of Europe (as well as far-flung regions of Asia in Kazakhstan, Israel, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) in a fruitless attempt to further their respective national and club pedigrees, much less actually reach the group stages of their given competition.
Traversing the cities of Vaduz, Priština, Andorra la Vella, Tórshavn, Tirana and Podgorica, which encapsulate the passion in the repeatedly futile efforts of their local sides in scenes of natural splendour, adversity in their comparative lack of resources and often detailed histories of socio-political unease, our study will pose pressing questions at UEFA, the masters of these minnows’ fate, in this era of great upheaval in global, continental and national society and football. For example, having accumulated, in many cases, decades at the peak of their domestic divisions, do these ‘smaller’ clubs deserve a more generous arrangement from their continental overseers? Will they continue to exist in relative squalor, or can they, and their national leagues, be reprieved by the effects of a high-profile Champions League, or even Europa League, group stage appearance? If so seemingly keen on a Europe-wide footballing upsurge on the exterior of their Nyon-based headquarters, when will Aleksander Čeferin and his team deliver on their promises and ignite a footballing revolution in such beacons of reluctant, even untapped, potential in the sport they represent? More importantly, is there room for compromise from UEFA in reforming what has been a steadily evolving, but ultimately stagnating and less rewarding qualifying process in the eyes of the clubs that are confronted with its punishing tumult?
All are relevant and immediately obvious questions posed by an easy observation of the state of qualifying for either tournament in recent years. Having been finally imposed in the 1992-93 season of rebranding from the European Cup to the Champions League, and in the 1994-95 season in what was still, at that stage, the UEFA Cup, preliminary stages opened possibilities of showcasing talent on a truly continental stage originally for every minor nation’s league champion in the former competition and runners-up and domestic cup achievers from every corner of Europe in the latter. As this policy was realised to be ineffective in creating competitive intercontinental football in the Champions League, however, champions from the Faroe Islands, Malta, the Baltics, half of Scandinavia, post-Soviet Union dissolution Albania, Georgia and Moldova, as well as Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales were axed from the bill, restricting Europe’s premier tournament again to only the most fortunate from the 1994-95 season through to the expanded 1997-98 edition; when two qualifying rounds and six groups, as opposed to the previous four, were introduced, while a host of former Soviet-controlled states made their debuts.
In 1999-2000, a Third Qualifying Round – further minimising, after innumerable thrashings in previous years, the proportion of minnow qualifiers - and another two groups were added, while fluctuations between 72, 73, 74 and 76 teams entering in the years following led to the 2009-10 introduction of the Play-off round and a ‘Champions Path’ and ‘Non-Champions Path’ in both this round and the Third Qualifying Round to at least raise the likelihood of non-establishment nation representatives arriving in the group stages, as those who won divisions lower on UEFA’s coefficient faced each other rather than Arsenal, Atlético Madrid and Lyon, for example. Participation has since increased to 78 sides, but the tournament maintains its apparent premise; largely benefitting clubs so fortunate as to be the representatives of nations steeped in tradition of achievement, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and England included, amongst others.
What only became the Europa League by 2009-10 continually remained an afterthought in these times of great upheaval. Absorbing what would have been the entrants of the Cup Winner’s Cup in its reformation in 1999-2000, the tournament finally gained a qualifying round, as opposed to the previous system of a preliminary round, further expanding what was already a competition of considerable diversity and scope, accepting a vast array of cup winners, minor division victors and larger league underperformers. In the 2004-05 season, however, the continuous bi-legged knockout stages were finally ousted as a method of whittling down the endless array of sparsely located sides and replaced with a group stage, while a Second Qualifying Round came into existence as a method of limiting the masses of small fry the competition had to cope with, signalling again a reluctance from UEFA to embrace its diversity and to retreat into its shell when posed with such a conundrum of apparent preference; its inherently frivolous establishment or the debt-stricken, notoriously hostile Eastern European outposts of the organisation’s delegation. By 2009-10, a Third Qualifying Round and Play-off stage were established, deeply entrenching such inequalities in the format for years to come, and as no significant alterations have since come to fruition, we are led to believe that unless there is a sudden cultural revolution and relative baby boom of naturally blessed footballers in any of the less proficient nations in the coefficient tables, no such changes will occur, perhaps for the next decade, in the development of the two tournaments.
That is, of course, unless either, or both, suddenly grow unpopular with their paying public. The temptation for the establishment to break away and form a financially favourable European Super League, much to Čeferin’s disgust – as was discussed in a blog almost a year ago on this site – became a heated debate last summer, and Real Madrid President Florentino Perez’s desire for the continued pursuit of such an extraordinary competition is no secret to those within UEFA HQ. Rule such a possibility out, and underestimate the influence of Perez and his counterparts in Western Europe’s biggest cities in shaping modern football, at your peril.
Currently, the only fathomable reasons behind an unparalleled public boycott of UEFA’s two-tiered Hunger Games are limited to the sole influence over the introduction of further qualification stages in the past; the lacking competition provided by the champions, say, of Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia when drawn against those in the hallowed ilk even below Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich’s quality. In short, the audience want to be entertained by close competition, dazzling skill and star names, rather than by fruitlessly spurring on an ineffective underdog against continental, if not global, heavyweights. That’s perhaps where I differ from the paying audience of Sky Sports, BT Sport and so on, as my most memorable matches over the past years include Tahiti at the last Confederations Cup, New Zealand at this edition, Iceland, Hungary and Albania at the last European Championship and FA Cup upset after FA Cup upset. The gulf in quality and resources has largely remained equal in each of these cases to their competitors, but whether the financial clout of Crusaders, of Northern Ireland, Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Wales’ The New Saints is comparable with their respective opponents in the Champions League’s First Qualifying Round last season -FC København of Denmark, Scotland’s Celtic and Cyprus’ APOEL - I highly doubt, let alone the former trio’s comparison with Manchester City, Roma and Monaco, who each entered through the Play-off.
In these respects, parallels can be drawn with another of my sporting passions, tennis. Through many media streams have I tracked the results and performances of British players, in particular, on an almost daily basis – as is my dedication and obsession with the cause – over probably the past two years. As a tennis nation lacking anything close to the depth of talent of Spain, France, the United States or Australia, many British players – Brydan Klein, Edward Corrie, Cameron Norrie, Naomi Broady and Laura Robson, for example – plough lonely furrows in racking up air miles in every corner of the globe on Futures and Challenger tournaments, with little financial reward, to continue their professional careers. While the likes of Kyle Edmund, Aljaž Bedene and Johanna Konta have exploited these opportunities and have risen up the rankings consequently, the dozens of British players still pursuing these second and third-tier tournaments without significant triumph leaves each individual at threat of losing their fragile livelihoods off the back of an injury or a run of poor form. Unless they are fruitful in passing the first or second rounds of these tournaments, prize money will often fail to cover the costs of travel, accommodation, rackets and apparel, not to mention the coaches who attempt to make a living alongside their charges. It is an extreme inequality that has been highlighted by Andy Murray in the past, as while he, as world number one, is able to garner millions of pounds in one season through commercial sponsorship in addition to tournament performances, those outside even of the top 100 in the world often fail to profit from their exertion. That must be directly comparable to the situation of squalor for those at the very lowest rungs of Europa League, perhaps even Champions League, qualifying.
Some may argue this situation is a just reward for the stature and historic performance of Europe’s elite. In most cases, this reasoning suffices for UEFA’s brethren and the majority of the viewing public. Outside of a leading six or seven footballing nations in Europe, notably, the only victors of the Champions League have been the Scottish-Romanian-Yugoslav trifecta of Celtic, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade in 1967, ’86 and ’91, thus signifying the dominance of Western Europe in the 111-year history of the competition. In the more unpredictable Europa League/UEFA Cup, six of a total of 46 champions have belied their positions in Sweden, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine to overthrow the usual suspects, though as IFK Göteborg’s duo of victories came in 1982 and ’89, and Galatasaray, CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk – of 2000, ’05, ’08 and ’09 respectively - are far from the paupers of the continent, slight honour is detracted from these conquests.
Overshadowing events in both tournaments, also, is the circumstance of the implementation of UEFA coefficient rankings in 1979, in which fairly complex mathematics began to be used to influence the unfolding events of the organisation’s self-glorifying competitions, further defining what was continually blatant to fans in the pre-eminence of Spanish, German, English, French and Italian outfits. Attributable to these calculations is the matter that a staggering 23 of UEFA’s 55 current member states are yet to have been represented in the Champions League group stage – a pulsating representation of the inequalities that are nurtured by the commercially-pandering contest of gluttony. Granted, seven of these nations only came into existence in the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, their net population of 47,892,395 only equates, roughly, to that of Spain alone and three (five if including Wales and Northern Ireland) are regions devoid of UN acknowledgement of their independency – Kosovo, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands – but a number of the nations within the 23 are ones with proud footballing legacies, many as first sports, and 11 have produced Champions League-winning players, while 15 have also spawned Premier League appearance makers.
These 23 are the minority – representing 6.48% of the total population, and 8.1% of the total land mass, of Europe’s considerable expanse – and there certainly is a reasonable argument to pine for the continuity of the established current façade of proportional representation UEFA presents in its tournaments. It makes for higher quality viewing – on that basis, nothing is disputed – but whether there is more entertainment in the cute stepovers of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben on the repeated occasion of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Semi-Final progression than in the gritty, body-sacrificing defending of a side risen from the poverty-stricken agricultural remnants of a once-prosperous Moldovan society, the diminutive Mediterranean tourist hotspot of Montenegro or the taxing and isolated volcanic landscape of Iceland can be challenged from any investigative angle. The prospect of witnessing the baby steps of the widespread establishment of the sport in Gibraltar and Kosovo, too, is an undeniably fascinating one, and if these stories fail to be portrayed through the transmission of the continent’s media then therein truly lies a shameful missed opportunity.
The issue of the matter is that such sides will continue devoid of notice if the current code of coordination persists. In the Champions League’s history, five nations are still only to have one representative club appear, at least, in the group stage – Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Belarus and Finland – in what, partly, is a testament to the authority of certain sides in each domestic division, but more to the limitation of the opportunities they are served by running out national victors, while 11 of the 32 nations that have appeared have had five or fewer successful group stage qualifications, raising the total of under-represented territories to 34. These 34, you may have noticed, outweigh the 21 nations – which all, other than Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and Greece, hail from Western Europe – that represent UEFA’s formal establishment marked somewhere between the Iron Curtain and historian Dimitri Kitsikis’ geopolitical boundary between Western Culture and his ‘Intermediate Region’. Younger, poorer and smaller nations largely focused in Eastern Europe, with anomalies in the aforementioned Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and Greece – each nations of great cultural, territorial and historic stature -, UEFA’s 34 undervalued regions face a desperate situation as a result of a deeply indoctrinated clamour for the elegance and refinery of socio-economically advanced Western Europe. UEFA simply faces a conflict of self-interest; they persist to reward those who fit its exacting criteria, who are, in all but miraculous examples, those with enough cash to fund stadium expansions, quieten fans whose passion threatens to blemish UEFA’s reputation and sign players of established international quality for millions upon millions of imprudently scattered pounds or euros. An ounce of sympathy for those clubs, within the restraints of our 34 nations, who can’t realistically afford to even rack up weekly wage bills over £50,000 for their entire squad, rather than just a single player, is impossible to locate in such a nauseatingly misguided government as UEFA proceeds to be.
What else, though, can be anticipated from those presiding over continental jurisdiction in a Swiss city, Nyon, where a four-room apartment can set you back over €1,000,000? Aleksander Čeferin, although a Slovene, cannot be trusted to uphold the demands of his nation amongst its many neighbours as he is siphoned from the elite – a lawyer with little capacity for the niceties of the sport, and, akin to his predecessors, a President who panders to the organisation’s lawmakers and dignitaries far more than to its nations, clubs and fans. Whether there is so little interest for the plight of the underfunded clubs east of Prague, Warsaw and Zagreb that this issue will never come to head is difficult to ascertain, but for the continent to be democratically united and socially embracing of its diversity, surely seismic alterations require communicating, at the very least. While FIFA claims to be ‘For the Game. For the World’, and other than in the case of Sepp Blatter-influenced corrupt investments in African causes for the sake of dignitary’s votes has been slow to act upon their apparent intentions, UEFA have been reluctant to even emblazon themselves with any such inspirational slogan of acceptance. Perhaps they are so self-aware that in realisation of their loyal service to a long-touted internal institution they have shelved any intentions to make promises to their disregarded citizens. Or is it the polar opposite – that their confines have been permeated by a smokescreen of commercial success, created by funding the interests of their elite, that blinds them from any potential worries from Sarajevo, Vilnius or Skopje? My worries that, as always, it appears to be the latter, are wrought with disappointment and, in all truth, embarrassment on the part of Western Europe’s unfulfilled greed – case in note, the failure of English clubs to achieve little more than a disdainful exit to the superiority of Germany, Spain or France on an annual basis.
We need only consult my previous alignment with the drastic inequalities of the tennis tour to survey the potential contained within our voiceless 34, and much more pressingly 23, if to argue a more considered form of true proportional representation within Europe’s premier competitions. Admire Johanna Konta, world number 151 of yesteryear (March 2015, to be exact), who had risen dramatically to peak at world number six in May earlier this year, and from a continual failure to qualify for Grand Slams to threaten to topple the comfortable elite in the latter stages of such tournaments. Jeļena Ostapenko, the Latvian world number 47 at the French Open’s late May opening, went on to upset all odds and win her first Grand Slam, having just turned 20, on the Roland Garros clay – the first unseeded woman to have proven victorious there since 1933 and the first Grand Slam champion her nation has ever produced.
Tennis, however, isn’t a sport where backroom funding proves decisive – nor even does pure talent or exceptional coaching. Any permutation of events is arguably possible in a sport where a racket and ball can be put to so much destructive use by an individual so inspired on the day of a match, while a faulty mentality, persisting injury or distaste for a particular surface could each spell a defiant upset if the higher-ranked player is faced with such afflictions. Establishments are created by a consistent combination of physical and psychological skills, in addition to a sheer defiance of the extremely slight odds of the occupation. In football, however, it is teams, rather than individuals, that will survive centuries of endless action, rendering the actions of the playing cast effectively meaningless, as a hefty arsenal of factors have already been enacted into existence by club, or national FA, chiefs as to dramatically reduce the likelihood of an upset that when such an unforeseeable event occurs, it is etched into the very persona of the sport and studied endlessly.
Considering Europe’s minnows possess no such capacity for investment, nor overawing source of inspiration from which to progress, it is apparent that they can only continue to stumble aimlessly at a gratifying existence of unfulfilled promise. Undoubtedly, there is a vast scope of natural genealogical talent going to waste without an introduction to football in both our 23 and 34 nations as their national FA’s and largest clubs continue to appeal for sufficient funding, directly from UEFA and from their performance in the organisation’s tournaments respectively. Academies, grassroots clubs and participation campaigns go unfunded, and therefore fail to take advantage of the sporting prowess of generation after generation of possible national team-catalysing individuals, à la Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Edin Džeko and Gareth Bale in just four of our first 23 nations of note. Had more funding been available, and the scope for a contingency plan ascertained, for Armenia, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales in these examples, then perhaps vaster crops of such indelible talent would be at the disposal of their national team managers.
Notably, the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus last month, hosted at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, was the first ever, in those 111 editions, to be hosted even in one of the 34 nations I point to. Only two Europa League finals, in addition, have been handed to any nation within our Eastern European and minor Western European plethora since the 1998 implementation of neutral final venues – 2011 in Dublin and Warsaw ’15. Why is this relevant information? Surely, to bolster participation in such territories, the least UEFA could do would be to spark national interest through the showcasing of global superstars, a proven tactic in achieving such aims. Accordingly, for such a pathetic effort, the results have, as of yet, been minimal. Speaking of alternative policies, a saving grace for UEFA is perhaps provided by the fact that eight of our 34 indeed qualified for last year’s expanded European Championships, with Wales, Iceland and Poland particularly impressing, but this is surely undermined by the underlying source of players for each nation; mostly playing, and in some cases, trained from a young age, abroad. Wales have utilised English academies, Iceland encouraged the crop after Eidur Gudjohnsen to follow his example in travelling the continent, while Poland have been blessed with many generations who fleetingly display talent in the Ekstraklasa prior to finding German abodes.
Scouring the names, then, that traverse the Europa League’s First Qualifying Round this season, not one would, I’m certain, compliment UEFA on the little opportunity they have for eventual qualification. Cities from Reykjavik to Baku are represented, while the new boys from the Rock of Gibraltar mix with the old hands of Tel Aviv, Belgrade and Budapest in a bittersweet crossroads of romanticism laced with misfortune upon bearing the brunt of UEFA’s greatest misdemeanours. At a realistic best, the chances of these clubs reaching the limelight of the group stage stands at 9.6% or so, by my calculations, but in acknowledging their prospective latter opposition – Galatasaray and Brøndby at the Second Qualifying Round; Everton, AC Milan and Zenit St Petersburg in the Third, if not the Play-off – you can immediately diminish those odds, as we already realise by their non-qualification record, effectively to zero.
Tell me where, then, 0% Champions League, or last season’s 6.25% Europa League, group stage participation – creating a 3.75% representation across the two competitions – for these nations represents the 6.48% of Europe’s population they embody? Is this sufficient to support the expansion of football throughout all corners of Europe that UEFA surely must desire and prioritise as a basic principle of their existence? It remains up to interpretation, but I vehemently argue otherwise, and feel ashamed of UEFA’s position and record on a matter their stance depicts their view on as fictitious. For the good of the wider game, I believe it is time the organisation is woken promptly from its slumber of naïveté and ignorance, and that they are held to account on failing the smaller voices amongst their committees, as true football fans want to see all capacities of the game performing to their optimum standard. When generations of footballers with such untapped reserves of potential pass without notice, the insinuation that UEFA is allowing each of its member states to prosper is totally unfounded and disrespectful to both the 23 and 34 countries and dependencies that could achieve so much more. It is an admittedly multifaceted matter of principle, and one that ultimately involves UEFA’s interaction with national and regional FA’s, clubs and grassroots levels, but to ordain tangible change, addressing the inequalities on the stage of continental competition is pivotal. No mean feat, certainly, but if achieved, its positive repercussions could be seismic for modern European football; what is supposed to be the foremost epicentre of the sport and its principles.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!