The Europa League final between Sevilla and Dinipro Dinipropetrovsk on Wednesday night was a wonderful spectacle.
In a 3-2 win for the Spanish side, it was end-to-end stuff with both sides giving their all in desperation at getting to touch that big old trophy and keep a medal that they can look at. Even non-football fans I know liked it (there were no thumbs or clicking involved in this one, so I don’t know if that’s ‘official’).
Change in perception
Maybe we will change our minds after this match, but the mere mention/combination of the words ‘Europa’ and ‘League’ is enough to induce groans all round amongst football fans in England, whether it is their team that's involved or not.
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Admittedly I have not spoken to or been around as many, but supporters throughout the rest of Europe do not appear to share this feeling towards the continent’s second club competition.
Like everywhere else, it used to be seen as an honour and adventure for clubs and their fans to get into Europe, whatever competition it was. But when it comes to the Europa League, it now seems like a chore and a hindrance more than anything.
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For clubs like Southampton (who can qualify should Arsenal beat Aston Villa in the upcoming FA Cup final) and West Ham United (who will be in it for services to Fair Play) and their fans, it’s an exciting opportunity to play under the floodlights against an unknown treasure or one of Europe’s big boys.
Or is it a case of first being optimistic, getting accustomed then getting bored of the whole thing? Like Tottenham Hotspur for instance, who can’t stop qualifying it. Should the Saints and the Hammers reach the group stages, get knocked out and qualify for next year’s, would they then see it as chore?
Difference in opinion
Clubs in Spain thrive on these ‘lesser’ European competitions. That’s why Sevilla have won the UEFA Cup/Europa League a record four times – all in the last 10 seasons. And it’s why Barcelona hold the record for most European Cup Winners’ Cup wins with four to their name plus two second place finishes.
Treating the Europa League with the respect it deserves explains why Atletico Madrid did well in the seasons they competed in it, winning in 2010 and 2012.
English clubs and their supporters often dismiss and ridicule the competition. Being broadcast on the much-maligned Channel Five probably helped add to this attitude, ridiculously. Now, it’s on the ever classy ITV 4, but still the dislike continues.
The lack of a winter break may play its part, but it’s usually the same old line about the Thursday-Sunday routine that rears its tired old head. Of course that doesn’t seem to affect other nations and what difference does it make whether it’s Wednesday-Saturday or Thursday-Sunday?
To be fair it appeared that Everton made a go of it this past season, playing their so-called ‘strongest side’, while Chelsea won it in 2013 (due to them entering it after getting knocked out of the Champions League) and Fulham reached the final in 2010. Apart from that Chelsea win, the trophy has been won only twice by an English club in the last 31 years: Tottenham in 1984 and Liverpool in 2001.
To sum up what the competition meant to the Sevilla and Dinipro players there were tears of both joy and anguish from the winners and losers. Just watch the footage of two goal hero, Columbian Carlos Bacca, crying on the bench as the final whistle was fast approaching and you will see what winning the Europa League meant to him and them.
Or maybe it was the thought of a new bonus from all the Champions League riches the club will be receiving, who knows.
All I know is that sides like Spurs should take it more seriously, as it is in other countries. In the recent past FC Porto and Atletico Madrid have won it and used it as a springboard for further success either or both in their domestic league or in the big one, the Champions League; with Porto winning it and Madrid narrowly missing out on it last season.
Still, they had come an awful long way to be getting anywhere near the final. If only us English weren’t so snobby and elitist one of ours could do that too.