This is my personal view on the UEFA conference league.
So I’m going to start off by talking about Rugby League, I know not what you would expect. It’s a Sport that I think is brilliant, I love to watch it, it’s passionate and incredibly skilful. However, in the UK the RFL is one of the most shambolic Sporting organisations around. Every two years something changes, the rules, the format of the leagues, the teams within those leagues and it is horrible. The constant change to adapt the game to the audience is actually having the reverse effect. People cannot connect to the game and the fans just want consistency. Starting to see the point?
In 1992 the Premier League was set up and the Scottish Football League has been largely the same since 1998. The changes made since then have been next to minimal and everything was good. Sure, we complained about the referees and we wondered why big decisions couldn’t be made through video replay, but ultimately fans have been content with the way football has been run on the field. The issue is, to the biggest organisations in Football, consistency does not equal growth. In the last 5 years we have seen football change dramatically, the introduction of goal line technology, VAR, changing in handball rules, the UEFA Nations League, bigger World Cups, countless clubs going under, Euro 2020 having no single host nation, 3 or 5 subs, project big picture, the idea of a Super League and now a third European Club competition.
The UEFA Europa Conference League, or Europa League 2, is a competition set to start in 2021. The competition is essentially a cash grab for UEFA to try and get more games and more clubs involved in European competition. And although it may seem like a good opportunity for some lesser teams to get involved in Europe the whole concept and it’s start date is riddled with problems.
The first and most predominantly being scheduling. Starting on July 8th, 2021 qualifying for the first ever Europa League 2 will begin. With this, UEFA is rising the amount teams who will be involved in European competition from 239 teams to nearly 400! 180 teams will be involved in the qualifying for the Europa League 2 and if we as fans know anything it’s that going through qualifying for European competitions instead of doing a full pre-season is a recipe for disaster. Inverness qualified for the Europa League in 14-15 after finishing 3rd in the SPFL and winning the Scottish Cup. I spoke to Greg Tansey earlier this year and he told me how the basis for that whole season was the brilliant pre-season which had 12 friendly games. But what qualifying for the Europa League the next season meant, a July 16th start, 6 friendly games and a season that lead to them finishing 7th . Leicester City brilliantly won the Premier League in 15-16 and then the next season a long Champions League campaign meant they dropped to 12th.
The introduction of another European League means more teams than ever are going to have packed schedules. A European qualifying campaign, league cup, FA Cup and the domestic League and we wonder why teams won’t play their best players in the Cup competitions. But let’s amp up the stakes here. Not only will teams have to contend with their own games but in 2021 there will also be the Nations League, the postponed Euro 2020 and qualifying for the 2022 World Cup! If you don’t like 5 substitutes like me then I hope you are ready for it to stay, as injury lists continue to grow in 2020 for teams around the world and with one of the biggest most packed years ever on the horizon I guarantee that 5 subs will become the usual.
Player welfare has been on the tongue of everyone involved in Football for a while. The increasing number of injuries and post footballing dementia starting to really take a precedent. Why then does it seem that UEFA has decided that the more the merrier? I player playing for a team in Europe will hit around 50 games in a club season, if that same player is also on international that number could easily surpass 60 especially in 2021. This means that a player could be playing on average a game every 6 days for an entire season, if UEFA are wondering what the limits are of footballers then the 2021 season could be good test for that.
But will this competition be taken seriously. The Europa League is already losing credibility with the only real prize being that winners qualify for the Champions League. But with teams in the Conference league being built around the smaller nations then surely the most likely winner every season will be the team for drops into the Europa League 2 by finishing 3rd in their group in the Europa League. Teams like Nice, AZ Alkmaar, Feyenoord, Real Sociedad and Spurs are the type of teams who could still finish 3rd in their Europa League group. And if teams in the Europa League are conceded weaker then surely teams from even lower coefficients are going to have no chance!
Then there is the effect on teams within the UK and Ireland. Northern Ireland and Irish sides will likely benefit from this league. Usually, they get no chance of reaching the group stages of European competitions due to the strength of the teams in qualifying, Shamrock Rovers v AC Milan being the standout this season. As for England it doesn’t really change much other than it weakens the reward of the League Cup with the winner now receiving a spot in the Group stage of the conference league. It also weakens the need to finish 6th who also get a conference spot. With Europa League places going to the FA Cup winners and 5th place.
As for Scottish Football. Recently the exploits of Rangers and Celtic has meant a raising in the coefficient in Scotland to 12th meaning that the SPFL is to receive 2 Champions League qualifying spots. However, the new competition means that 3rd place will not receive a Europa League place! Instead, 3rd and 4th this season will enter the second qualifying round of the Conference League. But the Europa League is not lost, the winner of the Scottish Cup will receive a place in the Europa League 3rd qualifying round. But obviously if the winner of the Cup already qualifies for Europe then the Europa League place will go 3rd and I’m going to be honest I’m not sure what that means for the Conference spots. Will they move down a place or will Scotland lose a European spot? I’m not sure. But the major issue for Scottish teams is that the spoils of the Conference League are not close to those earnt in the Europa League. Less exciting European matches, more unnecessary matches, less money for the clubs and generally less reward.
The fact is for me this stinks of UEFA trailing a scenario where their European Super League exists. It is no secret that it is something that they have been looking at implementing for some time now. And with all of Europe’s best in their own league what will happen to European competition? Well, you will see an increase in teams from lesser-known divisions taking part like a Conference League. We as fans are being drip fed a future that we don’t want and eventually it will sneak up on us and we will be able to do nothing about it. In my opinion, stop the change and let the game be!