What is the Europa League?
Briefly, the Europa League is the No. 2 European club competition, after the Champions League. Here’s a bit more on a competition some non-British readers might not know a lot about.
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Quickly, and as a bit of background, the world of soccer is divided into regions, and within each region there are three main competitions: countries qualifying for the World Cup every four years, countries having a regional (usually continental) competition every four years in a non-World-Cup year, and clubs battling for an annual championship.
In Europe, aka UEFA in soccer world, the last of these is called the UEFA Champions League. We wrote a whole post about the Champions League, but, to summarize, the top four teams in each Premier League season qualify for the next seasons’ Champions League. (You’ll hear this in relation to phrases like “Making the top four” or “Getting into the European places.”)
The next one to three teams, depending on obscure factors, qualify for the second-tier club championship of Europe — sort of the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAA. That is the Europa League — and an American sports reference.
The Europa League started in 1971 as the Europa Cup, and in 2009 it merged with two other minor club competitions and then was rebranded as the Europa League.
How do Teams Qualify for the Europa League?
It’s a very complicated process, based on the ranking of national associations — like Germany is ranked way higher than Belgium — meaning that countries have different allocations. Also, each country can sort of decide how to allocate its Europa spots.
In England there are three slots:
Seems simple enough, right? Well, hang on: If the FA Cup winner was in the top four or five, they go to the Champions League or Europa League, and the highest-ranked team in the League that didn’t already get into a European competition goes into the Europa League. This is how team #6 could get in. It’s the same if the League Cup winners already made Europe, which could let #7 in the league in.
The bottom line is, a maximum of three English teams will go to the Europa League, starting with the fifth-place team.
Also, as teams get knocked out of the Champions League, many of them drop into the Europa League.
English Teams in This Year’s Europa League
At the end of the 2020-21 Premier League Season, this is what the upper part of the table looked like:
The top four went to the Champions League, and Leicester City in 5th went to the Europa League. West Ham joined them for the 2021-22 season based on Manchester City winning the FA Cup, but they qualified for the Champions League.
Europa League Structure
The Europa League has three qualifying rounds, held in June and July, followed by a playoff round in August. All of these are two legs, one at each club, with total goals advancing. After the playoff round comes a Group Stage with 12 groups of four clubs each. They all play round-robin games, three home and three away, and the top two go on to the Knockout Phase. At each of these points, by the way, teams are falling in from the Champions League as well.
The Knockout Phase, which is also played over two legs, has 32 teams: 24 who got out of the 12 groups, joined by the eight third-place finishers from the Champions League group stage.
Who Cares About the Europa League?
Much like the NIT, only small-time teams who never win anything really care about the Europa League. For them, it’s a chance to play in any kind of European competition, which carries the chance of lasting long enough to run into some big European club that had an off year the year before.
A perfect example was during the 2020-21 season. Man U, after starting in the Champions League but falling into the Europa League after an early loss, advanced all the way to the finals. There they met Spanish club Villarreal, and the Premier League giant failed to capture the team trophy.
In the 2009-2010 competition, tiny Fulham of London made it all the way to the final, beating mighty Juventus of Italy along the way before finishing runner-up to Atletico Madrid.
In one recent competition, Arsenal had a home game in the group stages against FC Koln of Germany. Arsenal was kind of embarrassed to be in it, and so a lot of their fans sold their tickets — to Koln fans, it turned out. There were so many Germans there, and so many more outside, that kickoff was delayed by an hour while fans clashed with police. Arsenal fans inside the stadium were tweeting out messages about feeling intimidated and as if they were being “invaded.”
So the Europa League can occasionally deliver some drama, but for big English clubs — unless winning it is their only path to the Champions League, like Man U three years ago and Arsenal two years ago — it’s something of a distraction to the more important business of either staying in the Premier League or getting into the top four. Ultimately the goal is to be in the “real” European championship the next season.