If watching soccer is a gateway experience to the world, then learning a bit about a particular club, and the city they reside in, can help us understand that part of the world.
It also helps us dream of future groundhopping trips. March 2022 in Europe, anyone?
So let’s take a mini European soccer tour by getting to know the clubs facing English opposition in the Europa League Round of 16 in March 2021.
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What is the Europa League?
Each season, the top teams from England and other European countries qualify for European tournaments, called “leagues,” during the following season. In England, the top four go to the Champions League, and the next two or three (it’s a little complicated) go to the Europa League.
The Europa League starts in late summer with qualifying rounds, then 64 teams go into groups of four late in the calendar year. From that, 32 emerge to play two-legged knockout rounds, one at each club, total goals wins. That format is repeated until the final, which for this season is May 26, 2021 in Gdansk, Poland.
Sevilla of Spain are the current holders, the record sixth time they have won the title.
How to Watch the Europa League in the USA
The Europa League, and the Champions League, in the US are both on Paramount+, which until recently was called CBS All Access.
English Clubs in the 2020-21 Europa League
As of March 2021, we’re in the Round of 16. Leicester City were knocked out by Slavia Prague in the Round of 32, but three more Premier League clubs remain: Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. So let’s take a look at their opponents and when the games are happening.
Manchester United vs AC Milan
March 11, 12:55 p.m. Eastern in Manchester; March 18, 3 p.m. Eastern in Milan
The AC stands for Associazione Calcio, the latter being the Italian word for soccer. Also called simply Milan, the Red and Blacks (I Rossoneri) are absolutely not to be confused with their archrivals, Internazionale (or just Inter) Milan, although the two share the nearly 76,000-seat San Siro Stadium.
That rivalry, by the way, is called the Derby della Madonnina, or “little madonna,” in reference to the Virgin Mary statue on top of the famous cathedral, or duomo, in Milan. There’s a bit of class involved, as AC Milan were traditionally the working-class outfit to Inter’s middle class. I’m not sure how much that still holds up.
AC Milan are, in European competitions, the premier club in Italy, with seven Champions League wins. They are also tied (with Inter) for second in domestic league titles (known as the Scudetto) with 18, well behind Juventus’s 36. Milan are also said to be the best-supported club in Italy and the seventh-best in Europe.
Lately it hasn’t been all glory, though. Milan haven’t won the Scudetto (league championship) since 2011, or the domestic cup, the Coppa Italia, since 2003. So they share their current status with Man United, whom they have previously battled with in the Champions League.
Milan, with just over 3 million residents in the area, is Italy’s second city after Rome. But the whole metro area is around 8 million people, bigger than Rome. It’s a massively wealthy city, home of the Italian stock market and media empires, and known for fashion, design and art, attracting some 8 million visitors annually.
The most visited site is the city’s cathedral, the 4th-largest in Europe, but people also flock to the opera house and to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper. When the Champions League is in town in March, look for an average high of around 60 degrees with only a handful of rainy days the whole month.
Arsenal vs Olympiacos
March 11, 3 p.m. Eastern in Greece; March 18, 12:55 p.m. Eastern at Arsenal
It’s not really a stretch to say that Olympiacos, in European terms, are the club in Greece. They have won their league title 45 times, while the rest of the league combined has won it 39 times. They have won it seven times in a row twice and six times in a row once.
But it may speak to the quality of the Greek league that Olympiacos’s best-ever performance in UEFA was making the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 1999. More recently, including this season, they make the Champions League as Greek winners, then bow out in the group stage and wind up here, in the Europa League. Last year they lost to Wolverhampton at this stage.
Olympiacos are technically in Pireas, a port city within the Athens metropolitan area. Their biggest rivals are Athens-based Panathinaikos, with whom they contest the “Derby of the Eternal Enemies.”
This video gives you some idea of that rivalry and a game at Olympiacos:
Their 32,000-seat Karaiskakis Stadium, named for a general in the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century, was completely rebuilt in the early 2000s and is said to be one of the most modern, and loudest, in Europe.
If you have any sense of travel at all, you’ll know about Athens. The Olympiaco stadium is easy to reach on the city’s tram system, and the weather in March is about the same as Milan — average high around 60 but a little wetter — and, as Rick Steves puts it, you can “kick around the same pebbles that once stuck in Socrates’ sandals, with the floodlit Parthenon forever floating ethereally overhead.”
Tottenham Hotspur vs Dinamo Zagreb
March 11, 3 p.m. Eastern in London; March 18, 12:55 p.m. Eastern in Zagreb
Arsenal’s great rivals Spurs will be off to Croatia to face that country’s version of Olympiacos: a club that dominates the domestic game but has never reached great heights in European competition. Dinamo Zagreb did win something called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the 1960s (defeating Leeds United in the final) and they point as their greatest European nights to a 2-1 win over Arsenal in the 2015-16 Champions League and a 0-0 draw against defending champions Manchester United in the 1999-2000 tournament.
The history of the club is confusing to trace, because it was founded in Yugoslavia, banned by the Communists around World War II, restarted under a different name in 1945, then joined the Croatian league after Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war. They now claim a history dating back to 1911.
Dinamo, by the way, is a word that refers to “dynamism” and was first used for a Russian fitness club in the 1920s. The name is widely used by clubs throughout Eastern Europe.
Their Maksimir Stadium, named for the neighborhood it’s in, holds 35,000 people and was massively renovated in 2011. The East Stand is currently closed because of damage it suffered in a 2020 earthquake.
I actually came across Dinamo Zagreb in a Champions League group stage game at Manchester City a little while back. Their fans have been accused of hooliganism and racism over the years — and there were certainly some interesting arm signals when I saw them march by my hotel room — but I most remember them for taking their shirts off when City scored their first goal.
While certainly not the place most tourists head for in Croatia — that would be Split and Dubrovnik — it’s a welcoming, fun city filled with street art, cafes, and enough sights to easily fill up a quick groundhopping trip. And then you can head off to the Adriatic Coast!
Be sure to see St. Mark’s Church in the 1,000-year-old Upper Town, where many cafes and museums are also found. Zagreb is said to have more museums per square foot than any other city in the world. The Dolac Farmers Market has been on the same spot in the central city since 1930.