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.”
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.
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.