Europa League requires reform

HAMBURG, GERMANY - MAY 12: Antonio Lopez of Atletico Madrid lifts the UEFA Europa League trophy following his team's victory after extra time at the end of the UEFA Europa League final match between Atletico Madrid and Fulham at HSH Nordbank Arena on May 12, 2010 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

For all the junketing journeys and for all the anticipation that comes hand in hand with even the bleakest of Thursday evenings, there is little doubt in that the Europa League is a flawed concept.

I'm sure the proposals behind it are quite simple and make the sanest of sense - a European competition that is open to a broader range of clubs. It's almost a liberal Champions League. Perhaps, though, that is the root of the problem. The Europa League will always live in the shadow of its elder, and undeniably greater, sibling. Even with stupefying attempts to derail some of the World's loftier teams, such as Fulham's very own escapade into the unknown of 2010, the coverage offered is minimal and the attention paid even less so.

For every plaudit Fulham received there were a hundred or so more launched the way of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

As much as I complain about the inconsistencies, however, it doesn't make it any less certain that they will recur. Ferguson and Mancini will be the ones blushing when the English press drool at their every word and offer flattering superlatives in return, while the minor miracles of European football's secondary competition go unnoticed, almost as if it were an underground poker game of the illegal sort. The only people who can truly enjoy it are those in the thick of it.

And yet, the expeditions deep into the continent offer so much. As put so wondrously by Jim Beglin on a certain night in which Hamburg visited Craven Cottage: 'This is special. Yeah, we get to work on the Champions League a lot, we see some big games and we get some special moments, but this is really, really special. What a team, what heart, what character, what spirit, what an attitude they've got, wonderful.'

It won't stop the ignorance, though, because it's just the way of the World. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United; they all deserve their praise and there'll be no shortage of it.

The secondary nature of the Europa League is never more prevalent, nonetheless, then when teams drop out of the Champions League and find themselves cosily placed into the knock-out stages of a competition that the remainder of sides have fought so hard to be in. Is it really fair that Fulham can play 19 games to make a final, and Atletico Madrid merely 9?

Atletico are still the righteous winners by default, of course, and they celebrated as though they had been truly gifted a wondrous opportunity. That, they had. But it should be one they never received.

Hodgson's team of the time would have been even less fatigued if it weren't for the ceaseless qualifying involved. As current manager at Fulham, Martin Jol, can most assuredly testify, the early start this year did his newly inherited side no favours at all, and trips to the Faroe Islands and Croatia were nothing short of arduous. Qualifying procedures require enormous refinements and the necessary level of achievement to even be considered for the tournament needs upping twofold.

As it stands, sides of far greater ability are flying halfway across the World to face teams that are so inferior that in their heads they are already beaten. Even the fans can find 8-0 wins in the depths of Montenegro a tad monotonous.

And, with the increased strain on schedules comes a distinct downturn in domestic form. Eight Europa League ties down, and Fulham find themselves in the relegation spaces with only 2 points on the board in the Premier League - and those that felt that Europe may have benefited our new domestic campaign have been bitterly proven wrong.

This is far from an argument that the Europa League should be scrapped - it should merely be changed. Fewer matches played, more able teams to compete with and a certain sense of individuality from the Champions League is what's required. No Atletico Madrid drop outs and no merciless trips to airports with only vending machines to welcome you.

The Europa League needs to be a separate entity in which some form of elite competes and then the winner can at least feel some level of gratification. I'd rather Fulham won that than anything on offer right now.

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