On the seventh of March began the Europa League Round of 16.
And while the Champions League is considered to be Europe’s hallowed playing field, the Europa League is looked at with furrowed brows and handed step-motherly treatment by the same group of fans. They say that it contains no emotion. That it is a back-water tournament which contains no emotional investment whatsoever.
Well, I disagree.
A few weeks ago, the 21st of February saw Zenit St. Petersburg break the hearts of Liverpool fans after the Reds failed to qualify for the Round of 16 by the skin of their teeth after the Russian side progressed on away goals. The side from the city once named Leningrad had won 2-0 at home, and Liverpool had put three past them at Anfield.
For all we know, they could’ve gone through on that alone, but a blunder by Jamie Carragher saw Hulk give the Russian side a priceless away goal before Liverpool‘s three goal salvo.
And while Liverpool fans were offering each other commiserations and consolatory pats on the back, so were the Chelsea fans after their 1-0 loss to Steaua Bucharest.
Earlier, Eden Hazard’s pile-driver against Sparta Prague was enough to get the Champions of Europe (yes, they’re currently playing in the Europa League, which by default should up the value of UEFA’s ‘second league’) to the last 16, but they couldn’t recover from a 23rd minute Raul Rusescu penalty to continue their shambolic time under Rafael Benitez.
But former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas was celebrating. His Tottenham Hotspur team cracked three goals against Inter Milan, with Gareth Bale in scintillating form.
In their previous fixture too (Round of 32), Olympique Lyon fans were ongoing in unison after leading Spurs on away goals. Progress was all but certain as Spurs were constantly kept at bay at the Stade Gerland, until the celebratory champagne French fans would be uncorking would be used for drowning their sorrows rather than toasting les Lyonnais as Moussa Dembele’s screamer in the dying minutes ensured the Londeners’ progress.
And you call the Europa League boring?
Even despite this action, people say clubs don’t take the Europa League seriously. While it may not provide the same star billing as the Champions League, the Europa League does contain more than enough drama to satisfy those of us who sit on the edge of our seats trembling with excitement during a football match.
All you need to do is take a look at the status updates of Liverpool fans who show their determination to carry on supporting their club with the fervent belief they have always shown. And if Chelsea beat Bucharest at home as is expected, you can check their fans’ triumphant reactions. Or, it could be ‘Rafa Out’ all over again.
Not all of you watch Spanish football, but there is always a little more verve in watching a game when it comes to watching the reigning champions play.
But those of you who tuned in to watch Atletico Madrid win at Rubin Kazan would have seen the Mattress Makers play in Europe for the last time this season. The Russians won at the Felipe Calderon in the Spanish capital (2-0) but conceded only one in response in Spain. Atletico are an entertaining to watch, and there will be some who will sympathise with them for not progressing.
And the Europa League has its own advantages.
Everybody wants to feature in Europe, but not all of them can play in the Champions League. The Europa League is therefore the best way to groom players when it comes to learning the ropes at the European level and inculcates clubs with more prestige there was if there were no Europa League in the first place.
There are some who say that the winners of the Europa League should get an entry into next season’s Champions League. But that does not do justice to those who have earned that spot courtesy their performances in the league does it? It is also an avenue for players to win silverware and clubs to rely on the experience that it imparts to them, making for better quality of football at both domestic and continental level due to the learning curve it provides. It also provides a break and brings with it pressure of a different sort in comparison to domestic competition.
The Europa League has been created from the ashes of the old UEFA Cup to aid clubs in learning the ropes in Europe, increase their prestige and involve more clubs in European competition. It is vital therefore that it stays.
Tottenham have gone through their campaign unbeaten so far, and that seems to have translated into their performances in England as well. For all we know, they may not have been able to do that without the Europa League. Because better players make for better teams. Better players give you better reasons for emotion.
And at the end of the day, a better chance to achieve glory.