From the Fairs Cup to the Europa League

Europa League

You might not have noticed, but the UEFA Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup) started play this week. Despite the rebranding, you probably still don’t care too much who wins it — oddly enough, the tournament is back where it started in that sense. In the 1950s and 1960s, then known as the Fairs Cup, its purpose and meaning were unclear, and complaints rained down that it was just another pointless competition cluttering up the schedule. Then came the glory years for the UEFA Cup of the 1970s and 1980s — when and why has the tournament actually meant something?

The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup

The UEFA Cup has rather curious origins as the International Industries Fairs Inter-Cities Cup (lets call it the Fairs Cup for short, shall we?), a tournament first organised in 1955 only for teams representing European cities hosting trade fairs. It’s not particularly obvious from anything I can find why UEFA wanted to promote trade fairs — which at the time were a big deal, showcasing a city’s industry to investors and consumers from around Europe — but it was Switzerland’s Ernst Thommen, Italy’s Ottorino Barrasi (both future FIFA vice-presidents) and England’s future FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous from England who got the tournament off the ground, independently of UEFA.

The first tournament stretched over three seasons from 1955-58, in the early days of European competition — the European Cup was founded two weeks earlier than the Fairs Cup in April 1955. Teams from Barcelona, Basle, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Lausanne, Leipzig, London, Milan and Zagreb took part in the inaugural Fairs Cup. Similar to the Europa Cup today, British teams hardly saw the tournament as a priority, as the F.A.’s historian explains: “In those days the Football League and the FA Cup were the priorities for English clubs. They were wary of European competitions, then so new, in case they got in the way of their ‘bread and butter’ competitions.”

The tournament took three years to complete, as matches were timed to coincide with trade fairs, presumably to raise the profile of the fairs and at the same time promote intra-European football. Each city was only only allowed to enter one team (a rule that would remain in place until 1975), and the initial reaction to this was for cities to put together scratch teams from several clubs in to represent them — such as the London XI, which lost to Barcelona in the first Fairs Cup final 8-2 over two legs.  The Times‘ correspondent at the match noted the disability that “representative” city teams drawing on numerous club sides had. “Barcelona are a club side, and they demonstrated better teamwork throughout the entire match.”

Leeds celebrate winning the final Fairs Cup in 1971

Leeds celebrate winning the final Fairs Cup in 1971

The second tournament was for clubs only, but the stipulation that they must be from cities holding trade fairs was continued, and sixteen teams entered. Barcelona won again, in a contest that spanned three years to 1960. Similar to today’s Europa Cup, the Fairs Cup operated under a cumbersome and drawn-out group stage system until the semi-final stage.

After the second event, the tournament was contested within a single season; this added to the fixture list burden on many teams, and complaints began to spread about its purpose.  What, after all, did it really mean to be the best team in Europe that holds a trade fair?  Yet as football under the floodlights against exotic European competition became an increasingly glamorous and money-spinning priority for top European teams, the appeal of the Fairs Cup grew as a secondary European tournament, hanging onto the coattails of the benchmark European Cup.

The UEFA Cup

And instead of dying a silent death like so many other ill-conceived intra-European contests (stand up, Anglo-Italian Cup), the Fairs Cup was given purpose in the early 1970s as a serious competition, when it was taken over by UEFA and renamed the UEFA Cup, with the trade fair connection removed. It was now the ‘Runners-Up Cup’ — with only the national champion going to the European Cup, the chance for exciting European action for teams finishing second in their leagues quickly gave the Cup a prestige for two decades that it never otherwise had before or since. A playoff between the last and first winners of the Fairs Cup, Leeds United and Barcelona, was played to decide who would keep the Fairs trophy; perhaps fittingly, Barcelona — the most successful team in the history of the Fairs Cup — won.

Tottenham Hotspur won the first edition of the UEFA Cup in 1971-2; the glorious teams that won the tournament in the 1970s speaks to the quality on show, with Liverpool winning it twice in the early 1970s ahead of their European Cup glory years, and Juventus winning their first ever European trophy in it in 1977. The tournament was where many great teams first burst on to the European stage, just before they become enough of a powerhouse to win their domestic leagues consistently and graduate to regular European Cup competition. With countries having just one entrant to the European Cup, the UEFA Cup was always bound to be filled with prestigious teams.

Spurs' captain Allan Mullery lifting the UEFA Cup, celebrating their victory in 1972

Spurs' captain Allan Mullery lifting the UEFA Cup, celebrating their victory in 1972

The beginning of the end for the UEFA Cup’s prestige came with the launch of the UEFA Champions League in 1992. With countries now having as many as four entrants to that, the quality of the UEFA Cup inevitably suffered. Its purpose became even more confused in 1999, when it was merged with the European Cup Winners Cup, and a group stage was added in 2005-6, guaranteeing teams more games but only adding to the sense it was all rather pointless. With teams that had failed to qualify from the group stage of the Champions League also parachuting into the tournament, it was not so much the Runners Up Cup any longer, but the Also-Rans Trophy. The attitude towards the tournament shown by Spurs manager Harry Redknapp earlier this year — despite his club’s many glory moments in the tournament over the years — showed how far it had sunk, as Spurs put out a weakened team seemingly bent on eliminating themselves.

UEFA Europa Cup

The format has been changed once again for the 2009-10 season with the rebranding of the tournament as the UEFA Europa Cup, with the Intertoto Cup also folded directly into it. I have to call on Wikipedia to explain how it’s all going to work, because it’s really not worth trying to keep track of this ourselves:

A new format for the UEFA Europa League will be introduced for the three-year cycle, starting in the 2009–2010 season. The biggest change is that there will be a group stage with 12 groups of four teams (in a double round robin) instead of eight groups of five (in a single round robin).

Qualification will also change significantly. Associations ranked 7–9 in the UEFA coefficients will send the Cup winner and three other teams to the UEFA Europa League qualification, all other nations send a Cup winner and two other teams, except Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino, who will only send a Cup winner. Usually, the other teams will be the next highest ranked clubs in each domestic league after those qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, however France and England will most likely continue to use one spot for their League Cup winner. Additionally, three places in the first of four qualifying rounds are still reserved for Fair Play winners. For the inaugral 2009–2010 season these places will go to Rosenborg of Norway, Randers of Denmark and Motherwell of Scotland.

Generally, the higher an association is ranked in the UEFA coefficients, the later its clubs start in the qualification, however every team except the title holder has to play at least one qualification round.

Apart from the teams mentioned, an additional 15 losing teams from the Champions League qualification round two will enter in the fourth and last UEFA Europa League qualification round, formerly known as the first round, and the 10 losers of the Champions League qualification round 3 will directly enter the UEFA Europa League group stage. The 12 winners and the 12 runners-up in the group stage will advance to the first knock out round, together with eight 3rd placed teams from the Champions League group stage. The losing finalist for the domestic cup competition will still be entitled to be entered for the UEFA Europa League should the domestic cup winners qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

Right, then. Got that?

The central reason for the latest name changes has little to do with the format — the tournament already had a group stage, after all — but as a branding tool with UEFA taking over the sale of television rights for the entire tournament, instead of teams selling their own rights. With the central sale, UEFA has raised the value of the competition, which one supposes will also mean more prize money and thus more incentive for teams to take it more seriously.

What UEFA hasn’t done is managed to raise the meaning of it all to supporters across Europe; the tournament now seems as pointless to win as the Fairs Cup of the 1960s with the plethora of entry requirements and drawn-out groups stage. The tournament’s glory days of the 1970s and 1980s seem to be confined to the same dustbin as the name UEFA Cup.

7 thoughts on “From the Fairs Cup to the Europa League

  1. Damon

    Good article but think the issue is that supporters actually love European football participation of any kind whatever the opposition and hold the Europa League in high esteem.

    It is clubs ( Premiership clubs mostly – As you mentioned Spurs – and teams like Bayern who have this issue that they are too good to be in it or that cup football distracts from the important stuff).

    But being in the Europa league for supporters in a massive thing for fans whether they support Man Utd or Bayern. The reason is that the Champions League has a same-ness to it every year and over familiarity season after season. The Europa League allows fans to go to well known but exciting places from say Getafe in Spain, Lokamotiv Moscow to Dneipropetrovsk in Ukraine. For fans of clubs in the Europa League it is great to be in European competition and the away trips to unknown and well known parts of Europe are the highlights of the season rather than the annual jaunt to Barcelona/Liverpool that the Champions League offers.

    I think UEFA rebranding and re-jigging the format of the thing is done wholly for the benefit of clubs and not fans. The groups stages this year will make it harder than ever for smaller sides to qualify for the groups as more bigger guns will be in the final qualifying round than ever before e.g. from Roma to Everton. This is being set up more like a Champions League II rather than a unique event with its own identity and rewards.

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Interesting point, Damon. There is certainly more variety on the UEFA Cup for travelling fans, but then I think of the thousands Villa fans spent following their team out east last year to watch their B team show up — that’s got to be very frustrating. I think you’re right about the setup of the Cup, though, and the motivation for it.

  3. The Big Football

    The Uefa Cup, or now Europa League was always a way for weaker teams to harvest points and hope for a better ranking next year when trying to enter the UCL.

    I really don’t see how some teams can consider a European competition not worth it, after all I’m sure the supporters of any team in Europe would prefer to see the captain lift the trophy than to just leave the UCL in the quarter finals.

  4. Adrian Ludbrook

    As an Ipswich fan I’ve seen us win the UEFA Cup back in 1981 under Sir Bobby Robson, and remember the giant games against Barcelona and St Etienne, then a European powerhouse, as well as experience the competition in post Champions League form in 2001 and 2002.

    The post-ECL UEFA Cup was a shadow of its former self, but the footballing landscape had changed so much in the 20 years that had passed that for a supporter of a smaller club like Ipswich you’d thought Europe was always going to be a distant dream. In the 80′s a small club like Ipswich with clever stable management on and off the pitch could compete with the giants, in fact in one case Arsenal backed out of a transfer deal with Ipswich becuse they couldn’t afford the wages we were paying. Fast forward 20 years to the world of all seater stadia and TV deals and Europe was for the ‘big four’ and we’d spent a long spell in the 2nd tier of English football.

    In their first season back in the Premiership (2000/01) Ipswich were unlucky not to land the big prize, 4th place and the Champion’s League, but finished 5th and Europe was coming back to Town (and Man City got relegated from the Premiership after 1 season – see how quickly football changes). We didn’t care that it was the UEFA Cup – for us the dream was real, Europe.

    OK the clubs weren’t always the glamour ties (no offence Avenir Beggen!) and some were just weird, 12,500 in the cavernous Luznikhy Stadium, Moscow vs Lokomotiv Moskow with the attendances highest to lowest being travelling Town fans, Russian Security Forces and finally Lokomotiv fans, but then we landed the big one, Inter Milan over two legs.

    Back in the 70′s and 80′s when we’d been European regulars we’d never lost a home game, and that record had stood through the 2001/02 campaign and so far through the 02/03 campaign. When Alum Armstrong scored with a header in the second half we might as well have won the World Cup. We beat Inter Milan 1-0 and Portman Road, despite the fact we had been relegated at the end of the 2001/02 season and only got into the UEFA Cup on the fair play ticket.

    We took 12,000 away to the San Siro, me included. On the night the attendance was around the same as our sell out home game, around 30,000, and that’s decidedly empty in the San Siro. We got spanked, Christian Vieri running riot and a cameo from the real Ronaldo (the podgy Brazilian one) coming on for the last 10 minutes. Our consolation penalty was celebrated like we’d won the whole competition, probably because we knew it was going to be the last European goal we’d see in a long time.

    So the Europa League, is it a waste of space? Well no, not for clubs like Ipswich.

  5. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Adrian — wonderful to read of such memories. I’m sure if Brighton ever made it to Europe, I’d feel the same way. But are you sure it would mean as much to play in the Europa League than it did the UEFA Cup in its heyday?

    It seems to me UEFA could do a lot more to have a serious second-tier contest mean more, surely the Champions League has eaten into its prestige, and the group stage makes it much less likely a smaller team like Ipswich would make it to the final than in times past.

    The UEFA Cup could have kept more of its identity by staying as a knockout tournament in contrast to the drawn out Champions League, but money talked for UEFA again.

  6. Adrian Ludbrook

    Tom, I agree. The Champions League should be exactly that, each nation’s champion playing to be the best club in Europe, but money has disfigured the competition into the huge money making monster it is today. Pre-cursor to a European Super League perhaps? I wouldn’t put it past UEFA.

    Yes, the Europa League is a shell of its former self, but it’s Europe and in the modern footballing world of haves and have nots us smaller clubs simply can not compete at ECL level.

    The real answer is to return the ECL to its pure form, why should England have four teams in it and Poland, Norway, Austria, Eire etc etc none unless they overcome numerous qualifiers. It won’t happen.

    The second option is to return the Europa League to a knockout competition with some hard work on the marketing. It needs to be the FA Cup of Europe, it needs to capture ‘the magic of the cup’, where the little team can be heroes and status and history count for nothing.

  7. Damon

    All for smaller clubs like Brighton and Ipswich one day competing in the Europa League or UEFA again. But the return to the knockout type tournament would not really be appealing to either fans or teams. As it is the groups stages allows smaller teams to generate some cash and then the tournament goes onto a straight knockout round system from the last 32.

    My own team (Aberdeen) qualified for the UEFA cup groups stages two seasons ago and subsequently got out of them with a win and a draw and onto the last 32 for a knockout tie v Bayern Munich. It was fantastic to play Atletico Madrid/Panathiniokos away and Copenhagen and Moscow at home. The chance this year for us will be extra tough since the introduction of new qualifying rounds means that by the time the final knock out round comes about we may have to play Roma, Everton, Genoa or a host of other CL dropouts to get into the group. But it goes via co-efficient meaning that even if you are a seed you still have to play someone half decent. I am optimistic though that the chance is there to qualify but UEFA have squeezed the Europa League into a CL II type format that is seeded against the lesser type teams.

    If you look back the number of smaller type teams that have got to the UEFA cup groups stages the list is endless (Getafe, Amica Wroki, Lech Poznan, Nancy, Blackburn, Aberdeen, Bolton). This year one or two will get through but less than normal.

    Believe me if your teams experienced what we did with trips to Madrid, Greece and the home games you would not want the return of an anti-climax type knockout tournament.