When UEFA announced the introduction of a tertiary continental club competition, it’s fair to say that the idea received a lukewarm reception at best. While some, for various reasons, did instantly herald the UEFA Europa Conference League as a welcome addition to the European calendar, for the majority it appeared to be another maverick UEFA project – a concept formulated by a governing body seemingly more concerned with validating its own role against a backdrop of rising ‘super’ club power than adding real value to the game. Clearly, there were also financial motivations involved, with UEFA looking to eke out every ounce of commercial potential from its lucrative estate. Nevertheless, even the most ardent critics of Europe’s governing body would concede that it’s unlikely that the instalment of a third tournament—with all the complexities and added organisation this entails—would be created exclusively under the pretence of protecting profits and legitimising UEFA’s position.
Regardless of its catalysts, however, we’re now, after the UEFA Europa Conference League’s inaugural eighteen months in operation, able to draw some informed, early conclusions about its status within the overarching framework of European club football, its popularity amongst fans, players, and coaches alike, and whether the three-competition format is sustainable amidst an already saturated footballing calendar. Indeed, adding further fixtures to an already relentless schedule was always going to be an unavoidable by-product of this endeavour.
So, do the advantages of this Conference League outweigh the almost insurmountable pressure it serves to apply to an already bustling fixture list? UEFA’s challenge in this regard was made all the more difficult given FIFA’s decision to land the World Cup slap bang in the middle of most of its associate members’ respective league seasons. Furthermore, even allowing for the fixture congestion dynamic, is a competition for the third-tier of European clubs really that important? Is the quality of the product enough to justify its existence, and should sides unable to reach the standard of the Europa League group stages really be accommodated with another opportunity to feel like a continental-level force?
A broader base
The greatest benefit the UEFA Europa Conference League has provided is undoubtedly the platform it has given to those located in Europe’s footballing outposts. The club sides of ‘periphery’ nations, often in both a geographical and competitive sense, have found it increasingly difficult to compete in, or even gain access to, the two pre-existing major club tournaments. The increasing financial stranglehold of the continent’s famed ‘top five’ leagues—the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Ligue 1—has had severe repercussions on the breadth of representation in the Champions League and Europa League, with the latter stages of either tournament often purely composed of clubs from this domineering cartel. Indeed, when sides who occupy the relegation places of the Premier League can spend exponentially more than the champions of most other territories, we know we’re in the midst of a lopsided financial distribution model. The primary function of the Conference League has been to provide a challenge to this hegemony, albeit in a slightly contrived format that does little to threaten the true monopoly of western Europe’s controlling elite. Nevertheless, a cursory glance at the qualification structure tells you all you need to know about its more inclusive intentions.
Although the League’s coefficient system means that the number of teams involved from each UEFA-recognized association is on a sliding scale (as per the Champions League and Europa League), the methodology that underpins this process ensures that there will always be a decent cross-section of sides featuring from previously under-represented nations. Those participating in ‘smaller’ leagues, such as the top-flights of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Lithuania, Albania, and Georgia, are afforded three clubs in the competition, entering at various stages of the initial qualification process. Moreover, those belonging to the lowest-ranked leagues, such as outfits competing in the Estonian, Andorran, and Welsh top divisions, are given two places—a relative coup in the context of previous years. Another positive of UEFA’s revamped approach is the desire to protect each country’s Champions League spot, with the title winners of each nation, irrespective of its leverage within the European game, still rewarded with a place in at least the qualification rounds of the continent’s premier club competition.
In this way, the Europa Conference League takes on a similar profile to that of the UEFA Nations League, the tournament that has managed to intelligently incentivise the otherwise fairly drab routine of international friendlies. Although not quite as bold as its initial launch, which guaranteed a relative ‘minnow’ would be in attendance at the delayed 2020 European Championships (North Macedonia were the first and only benefactors of this revolutionary rule change), the Nations League has served to champion the ambitions of so-called smaller nations. Perhaps the most potent example of this is Gibraltar, who, after a positive campaign last time out, took their place in Group C this season: level three of the continent’s four-tiered ranking system. The Nations League format, as it did for others, gave the British Overseas Territory the opportunity to line up against outfits of a similar playing standard in a fully-competitive international tournament. Rather than shipping countless goals to highly-seeded nations with incomparable resources and player pools, Gibraltar registered positive results against more closely matched opposition, building confidence and belief as a result. Surely, this should be hailed as an achievement in the development of European football, and therefore also adopted at club-level?
The Gibraltarians would certainly attest to this concept, with their impressive Nations League performance already inspiring their local domestic sides. Last season, Lincoln Red Imps, stuck in a perpetual rut of failed European qualification campaigns, reached the group stages of the Conference League to become the first side from Gibraltar to reach the official rounds of a major competition. This feat has been followed by a raft of other member associations, with Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Armenia, and Estonia amongst those who can now boast a representative appearance in a continental tournament. Even Kosovo, only accepted into UEFA via a slender majority in the summer of 2016, have now seen native side FC Ballkani rub shoulders with the likes of Slavia Prague and CFR Cluj, two extremely familiar names on the European circuit. In year one, the Conference League served to boost the number of represented nations in UEFA club tournaments by 20%, with 36 active member associations as opposed to the 30 generated by the Champions League and Europa League in season 2020/21. Fast-forward twelve months to this campaign, and we once again have a 36-strong cast. The result? A higher standard of football played across a greater surface area, enabling more Europeans to enjoy a better quality of product on home soil.
East hopes to meet West
A stronger breadth of representative nations is a dynamic that ensures teams in isolated territories feel more engaged within the UEFA community, and helps to challenge the geographical disparities formed and subsequently cultivated in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the top five European leagues all lie west of Berlin, with the fragmentation of the U.S.S.R catalysing a protracted period of destabilisation for all lands east of the lifted Iron Curtain. Newly formed sovereign states, stepping tentatively into a new world of independence and free market economics, would take time to learn and adapt to their respective new surroundings. In truth, most eastern European nations are still playing financial catch-up to their continental cousins in the West. As a natural consequence of this economic imbalance, the footballing fabric of former Soviet states is often less refined than Western set-ups, with eastern-based clubs simply unable to pull on the resources so readily available to those plying their trade in the top-flights of the likes of Spain, Germany, or England. That’s not to say that these sides haven’t made valiant efforts to close this gap; however, given the eye-watering sums now involved, the reality is that without UEFA intervention, the chasm between East and West is far more likely to expand than reduce. For clubs operating in lands formerly ensconced within the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, this interception can’t come soon enough, particularly in context of the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
No side east of Germany has lifted a major European trophy in the last decade, with Shakhtar Donetsk’s Europa League triumph in 2009 the latest accolade in this regard. Moreover, you’d have to go all the way back to 1991 to trace an eastern outfit winning Europe’s premier club competition, with Red Star Belgrade defeating Marseille in the penultimate final of the ‘original’ European Cup, two years prior to its Champions League re-configuration. Even the continent’s old third-tier tournament, the much-maligned Intertoto Cup, never bore witness to a non-Western champion, although nine sides from a combination of Russia, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, and Moldova did manage to seal runners-up positions at some stage during the competition’s 23-year tenure.
Those chasing the dream, and those that used to have it all
However, the financial shot in the arm that follows qualification to the Conference League is not only heartily welcomed by teams in the East, it’s also greatly received by clubs who operate within the epicentre of European football, but outside the continent’s all-powerful top five leagues. Although, even accounting for this significant cash injection, this group can only hope to hang onto the coattails of those sides affiliated with the ‘elite’ leagues of England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Nevertheless, a place in the Conference League ‘proper’ is worth a credible €2.94m (£2.5m) alone; throw in £426k per win, £141.5k per draw, gate receipts, and prospective merchandise sales, and you’ve got some serious fiscal opportunity—indeed for some, an unprecedented one. For example, in the case of Irish Premier Division qualifiers Shamrock Rovers, this amount represents a higher sum than the cumulative value of their entire playing squad. The ‘entry’ figure of approximately €3m may have felt like a comparative drop in the ocean for last year’s Conference League winners Roma, but, even for a powerful Serie A club, their eight victories and three draws from thirteen fixtures (the Bodø/Glimt faithful will undoubtedly be quick to remind us of two famous nights that saw the ‘giallorossi’ defeated from within the Arctic circle), alongside some booming Stadio Olimpico attendances en route to the final, certainly produced a worthwhile financial return.
As well as having the ability to facilitate a more ‘inclusive’ participant roster, the UEFA Europa Conference League also offers an opportunity for fallen giants, left behind by many of those who compete in the continent’s richest leagues. Indeed, a number of ‘smaller’ clubs, belying their stature and supporter reach, have now overtaken many of Europe’s historical powerhouses, a situation which has transpired solely on the basis of location. To the footballing purist, these monsters of the past, with colossal fan bases, huge stadiums, and an iconic brand on the European stage, will always demand greater respect than those whose elevated position, and indeed superior wealth, is purely a product of their domestic surroundings. However, the harsh reality is that these ‘smaller’ outfits can attract a higher calibre of player and invest more into infrastructure than one of the game’s ‘fading’ forces, and therefore advance further in continental competitions as a result.
Nevertheless, although the Conference League may not be the conduit that helps restore these sides to their former glory, it undoubtedly thrusts them back into the European limelight, and encourages them to develop their continental credentials once more.
In Greece, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos sit at the throne of crumbling empires. Poland’s Legia Warsaw, who reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1971, and the same round of the defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, haven’t progressed past the last 32 in a continental competition in almost 30 years. In a 12-year period between 1975 and 1987, Ukrainians Dynamo Kiev won two Cup Winners’ Cups, and made the last four of the European Cup on two occasions—their recent record, however, reads rather less impressively. Even some who have held aloft Europe’s most coveted trophy have found success on the continental stage hard to come by in recent years. For example, Celtic, whose Lisbon Lions roared to a famous European Cup triumph in 1967, have failed to progress past the Round of 16 stage since the Champions League was rebranded, although did register a UEFA Cup Final appearance in 2003.
The Europa Conference League could help to enhance the European experiences of these great clubs—and others like them—in the coming years. Furthermore, the quality and spectacle of the fledgling Conference League has also strengthened the case for its existence. Given the relentless domination of outfits from the top five leagues over UEFA’s two strongest club tournaments, the group games of Europe’s secondary competition seem to often resemble, in terms of club reputation and prowess, those found in its primary. However, the same equally could be said in context of the new tertiary tournament’s relationship with the secondary.
This season, clubs like Anderlecht, West Ham and Steaua Bucharest were pitted against one another, whilst European stalwarts Villareal, Lech Poznań, and Austria Vienna also found themselves in the same group. Add the likes of FC Basel and Fiorentina into the mix, and you’ve got a fiercely competitive tournament on your hands. Although this pool of clubs admittedly has representatives from three of Europe’s top five leagues, the likelihood is that many clubs—whether inside or outside this elite group—will benefit vastly from playing in the Conference League, and leverage their experiences of participating in a major continental competition to push onto the Europa League. Therefore, within a decade or so, the distinguishing line between Europe’s second and third-tier contests may well feel a little hazier than present day. Indeed, there’s already signs that this dynamic is beginning to materialise.
The knock-out stages of last year’s Conference League saw just four representatives from the top five leagues, with two of these, eventually beaten semifinalists Leicester City and Marseille, joining the competition after exiting the Europa League group stage. Moreover, Feyenoord’s appearance in Tirana was only the third time in seven years that a club from outside Spain, Germany, England, France, or Italy was involved in a major European final—that equates to an 11% rate of representation. No side who competes outside of those five aforementioned countries have featured in a Champions League final since 2004, when, in a contest seen as a red herring, Porto and Monaco met in Gelsenkirchen to determine the competition’s winner. The Portuguese may have run out 3-0 winners in Germany that evening, but it’s unlikely we’ll find another candidate to break one of football’s most robust hegemonies any time soon.
A platform for change?
The Conference League may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In a footballing realm which invites commercial enterprises to influence the scale and timing of fixtures, it feels almost irresponsible to champion the introduction of another high-intensity, match-heavy, and travel-demandant competition.
However, for the greater good of the game, one feels compelled to encourage football fans to throw their support behind the Europa Conference League. In the months ahead, it’s conceivable that many may just do exactly that—the nature and extent of recent European Super League protests illustrates that there is a renewed appetite to protect football from profiteering actors. Is the continued, unconstrained dominance of a select handful of leagues really that different from the ESL’s proposed ‘closed-shop’ design?
It may seem a somewhat romantic or perhaps naive notion, but it feels that UEFA’s latest project could stir some sort of genuine revolution in the upper echelons of the European game. For too long, officials of the continent’s governing body have presided over the growing stranglehold of the top five leagues, helping to channel unparalleled investment toward this group, and therefore accommodating the shift of its participating clubs into an obscenely lucrative, and extremely exclusive, ring-fenced financial environment. In truth, this contrived practice hasn’t really ended, but at least there’s now a concerted effort to be more inclusive, and throw a bone to member associations who have been consistently neglected in the modern era.
This is unlikely to make a sudden, material difference to the current balance of power, whether that be in the context of West versus East, or in respect of the top five versus everyone else. Yet, importantly, it seems the dial will begin to cautiously move towards more centred ground—albeit still a distance away from where it ideally needs to be.
Who knows? Perhaps in the next few years, the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich may just need to clock-up a few more air miles than they’ve recently been accustomed to…