If it’s late February, that means it’s time for European soccer’s greatest competition most average teams to face-off against each other in this year’s edition of the “tournament no one really wants to be a part of right now.” That’s right, the Europa League’s Round of 32 is officially underway.
Now that your favorite club has overcome the teams that range from second to fifth in countries that you didn’t even know existed in the play-in and group stages, you can look forward to the knockout stages of this continental tournament. Hopefully you missed the European giants in Lokomotiv Moskva (third in the Russian Premier League) and F.C. Augsburg (14th in the Bundesliga), and instead drew relative minnows like Midtjylland from Denmark (someone tell Manchester United). What are the rewards for winning in such an illustrious competition? Well, the winner of this round receives a cool €500k, while the winner of the tournament (keep in mind we’re still six rounds away from that) receives €6.5 million and a spot in next year’s Champions League. What a haul.
In all seriousness, with the Premier League’s new TV deal, English clubs will earn north of £2 million per Premier League game, win or lose, just on domestic TV rewards. And despite being labelled as an important European-wide competition, more fans will watch two mid-table Premier League teams over most Europa fixtures, and the players reflect this sentiment.
Take the recent Manchester United and Liverpool contests from the first leg for example. It took a heroic performance from United’s backup goalie, Sergio Romero, to keep the score at 2-1 against F.C. Midtjylland, currently in third place in the Danish Superliga. Two guys named Pione Sisto and Paul Onuachu scored for the home side, while the duo of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera (bought for a combined £70 million plus) failed to last the full 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, Liverpool tied 0-0 against F.C. Augsburg, who currently face a relegation battle in the Bundesliga. The game’s highlights feature one glaring miss by Daniel Sturridge, a near own-goal from the Germans, and a whole lot of subpar soccer.
In fact, despite holding a place as one of Europe’s elite divisions, the Premier League has had exactly two Europa League champions and only seven final four appearances in its 24 year history. Spain has been represented in the final eight times in the past ten years, while English teams have lost to football powerhouses such as Zulte Waregem (group stage), Besiktas (round of 32), and Dynamo Kiev (round of 16), all hailing from second or third tier European leagues, in the past two seasons. So why aren’t English teams performing nearly as well as they should be?
One simple answer is money. In addition to the aforementioned cash rewards for the Europa and Premier Leagues, Champions League teams get €12 million just for participating, with each rounds’ prizes rising up to over €50 million for the champion. And considering teams like Liverpool or Manchester United only need a top-four Premier league finish to access that ridiculous fortune, it’s no wonder that they prioritize league games. That sentiment even carried over to the fabled F.A. cup, where Manchester City recently gave five players their full debuts and played one regular starter in order to rest players for important Premier League and Champions League fixtures. And besides the money, the world’s top players want to play and win the top European competition, so without even qualifying it’s next to impossible to recruit players with enough quality to get you there.
Another, more worrying reason is that Premier League teams just aren’t as good as they used to be, or think they now are. Long gone are the days of United’s European relevance, as well as Liverpool and Chelsea’s magical trophy-winning seasons. Recent Europa embarrassments and Champions League failures, and even the plight of the national team, have all sullied England’s reputation abroad. And now, they are battling this season to determine if they can hold onto their fourth Champions League qualifying spot. See, beyond England’s reputation, their lack of success in European competitions have hurt them in the UEFA coefficient, which is a mathematical representation of a country’s continent-wide accomplishments. And so if Italy outperform them in such games this season, they strip England of its last qualifying position, making it harder for English teams to participate in future Champions Leagues. The Premier League suffers from a real tragedy of the commons here: teams in the Europa like Liverpool, Tottenham, Swansea, and Newcastle have sacrificed their success there in order to have a better chance at qualifying for the big one, not realizing that their failures are directly causing that qualification to be more difficult.
While the Premier League itself is more exciting and competitive than ever, its teams are failing abroad. The decline of league superpowers has lead to unprecedented parity and the storybook seasons of Leicester, Tottenham, Watford, and others, but it also may cost them a crucial Champions League spot. And while the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City have had to face real European superpowers too early in the Champions League, those participating in the Europa League have no such excuse.