This week sees the first legs of the UEFA Europa League Round of 32, and four English clubs are involved: Tottenham, Leicester City, Arsenal and Manchester United.
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In the first leg on February 18, they are all away from home; the following Thursday they all come back to England and play the same teams, with Spurs moved to Wednesday the 24th so they aren’t on the same night as Arsenal — a real headache for the London Police.
In fact, after we started working on this post, Covid intervened and started moving games all over the continent. This doesn’t matter, because nobody can attend a game anywhere, anyway! But we are going ahead with our “previews,” because we want you to know a bit more about these European clubs and so we can all start up new groundhopping wish lists for the post-Covid world.
So here’s a “Groundhopper Preview” of English clubs in the Europa League Round of 32.
These aren’t our predictions on who will win, rather this is about who the English teams are playing, what their stadiums and cities are like, and how much we wish we could be going to the games.
By the way, all UEFA Europa League games are available in the US on Paramount+:
Europa League Round of 32: February 18, 12:55 p.m. Eastern Time
Manchester United at Real Sociedad
Because of Covid-related restrictions, this game will actually be played at Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy.
Officially Real Sociedad de Fútbol, or Royal Football Society, La Real are in the Basque Country of Spain along with Athletic Bilbao. Like their neighbors, with whom they share the Basque Derby, they have a long tradition of using only Basque players. Real dropped that policy in 1989, but Athletic have stuck with it.
They are also a full athletic club, like Barcelona for example, so in addition to football they field teams in track and field, hockey (field, not ice), and Basque pelota, which is a type of paddle ball.
But it’s football they are known for, although they haven’t had a lot of big-time success. They’ve won La Liga twice, in 1981 and 1982, and they won the Copa Del Rey (King’s Cup, equivalent to England’s FA Cup) in 1909 and 1987. Here they are in that final, in blue and white, beating Atletico Madrid:
They have made 11 appearances in the Europa League (and four in the Champions League) but never made a final. Their youth system is known for producing Antoine Griezmann and the Basque Xabi Alonso.
The Stadium: The Anoeta Stadium, opened in 1993, seats around 36,000 in what appears to be a perfect example of the modern, multipurpose stadium. It’s in an athletic campus on the southern edge of the city.
The City: Wow, do we want to go groundhopping in this place! San Sebastián is a port city known as a travel destination, with international film and jazz festivals and a spectacular setting:
It has been described as having a Rio vibe with killer tapas and great weather, so let’s all put Real Sociedad high on our list of clubs to visit — after Covid, of course.
Tottenham Hotspur at Wolfsburg
Hi, Covid again: This one is being played in Austria!
Spurs, when they won an earlier version of this competition in 1963, were the first British team to lift a major European trophy. To do it again they have to get past the Volkwagen team.
Yes, Verein für Leibesübungen (VfL) Wolfsburg, or Wolfsburg Club for Exercise, grew out of an athletics club for VW workers formed just after World War II. In fact, the city was created in 1938 to house those workers.
The Wolves didn’t make Germany’s top division until the late 1990s, but have stayed there since. They got their only Bundesliga title in 2009, when they had Eden Dzecko, but the next year they bounced from the Champions League down to the Europa League, where they lost in the quarterfinal to Fulham. Since then, they’ve made three Europa League appearances, once getting to the quarterfinals, and they once made the semis of the Champions League.
The Stadium: Called, naturally, Volkswagen Arena, it seats 30,000 and opened in 2002. It’s a good-looking place, with two tiers all around, and is most famous for its roof, which lets in some light for the enjoyment of fans and growth of grass.
The City: I gotta tell you, from what I can see online, “founded to house auto workers” makes Wolfsburg sound about as exciting as you might think. This video offers a little tour of the major sights, starting with the stadium:
VW’s Auto City looks pretty cool, but Wolfsburg seems like a “get in, watch the game, get out” kind of scene.
Leicester City at Slavia Prague
This one is actually in Prague!
Slavia are kind of Czechoslovakia’s second team, after Sparta Prague, with whom they share the country’s biggest rivalry. (Slavia simply means “a place where Slavs live.”) They were founded in the 1890s by a group of medical students, and they dominated the early years of Czech football, sending eight players on the national team to the first World Cup in 1934.
They have won 19 league championships (to Sparta’s 36), including the last two seasons, and both clubs are regulars in Europe, since both league and domestic cup winners get in. Slavia typically crash out in the qualifying or group stages; the best they ever did in Europe was make the semis of this competition in 1996, where they lost to Valencia, 1-0.
The Stadium: Here is yet another modern stadium, this one smaller than most at this level with just under 20,000 seats. It opened in 2008 and is sometimes the home of the Czech national team. It replaced an all-wooden affair on a hill overlooking central Prague, which I bet was a great place to see a game! Also of note is that their stadium is less than a mile away from that of their other big rivals, Bohemians 1905.
The City: Prague is one of the major tourist destinations in Europe, in many ways because it survived World War II with relatively little architectural damage. Its entire historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the city is littered with museums, parks, beautiful buildings … you get the idea. Just go there if you can!
By the way, we recently interviewed a Leicester City fan about his European travels with the Foxes, in the first installment of our English Soccer Fan Chats:
Arsenal at Benfica
Again because of Covid, this one has been moved, to Rome. In fact, when Arsenal are “at home” next week, that one will happen in Athens!
Covid weirdness aside, if you’re going to study anything of European soccer history, you need to know about Benfica. Founded in 1904 and based in Lisbon, they are one of Portugal’s “big three” clubs to never be relegated from the top division, along with Sporting Lisbon and Porto. They have won 83 major trophies, including a country-leading 37 league titles and 33 domestic cups.
In Europe, Benfica had a period of dominance in the 1960s that remains nearly unmatched. Led by the legendary player Eusebio, they won the 1961 European Cup (now Champions League), beating Barcelona in the final, then defended their title the next year, beating Real Madrid in that final. They lost the final three more times in that decade, then again in 1988 and 1990.
Their best European run of late was making the 2011 Europa semifinals, when they lost on away goals to Braga, missing out on a final with Portuguese rivals Porto, who won it that year.
The Stadium: It’s called the Estádio da Luz, or Stadium of Light, but unlike the one in Sunderland, which honors miners and a light left on until they are all safely out of the mine, this one comes from the neighborhood’s name, which in turns comes from a local Church of Our Lady of Light.
The current 65,000-seater replaced the old Stadium of Light in 2003, and it’s known for its translucent roof that seems to float above the stands. In this sense it’s a bit like Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
The City: Lisbon is a port city fast becoming a financial hub, but with an old center of cobblestone streets, tiled roofs, and chic cafes — all this bathed in the warmest climate of any European capital. Its history dates back to Julius Caesar, and today some 25% of Portugal’s citizens call it home.
So, it’s just another place we groundhoppers need to aim for!