What is the UEFA Europa League?

Paul Gerald · Profile
What is the UEFA Europa League?

What is the UEFA Europa League?

Briefly, the Europa League is the No. 2 European club competition, after the UEFA Champions League. Here’s a bit more on a competition some non-British readers might not know a lot about.

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Europa League Trophy Manchester United

The Europa League Trophy, here on display at Manchester United.

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 two 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.

Even more recently a third-tier championship was introduced in 2021, called the Europa Conference League. Clubs who finish 7th in the Premier League would qualify for this competition, or it would be the League Cup winner, depending on how the season shakes out.

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?

The Emirates Arsenal FC London hosts Europa League soccer games

The Emirates, home of Arsenal FC in London, sometimes hosts Europa League games.

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 two slots:

  • The 5th-Place Team in the Premier League
  • The Winner of the FA Cup

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.

The bottom line is, a maximum of two 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 2023-24 Premier League Season, this is what the Europa League qualification spots looked like:

The top four went to the Champions League, and Tottenham in 5th went to the Europa League. Manchester United joined them for the 2024-25, as they won the FA Cup.

Europa League Structure

Sevilla FC are one of the best teams historically in the Europa League. Their home stadium was also the site of the 2022 Europa League Final.

Along with the Champions League and the Europa Conference League, the Europa League will undergo a large structure change prior to the 2024-25 season.

The “group stage” structure of the Europa League has been totally redone starting with the 2024-25 season. Now instead of groups of 4 teams, there will be one large league and teams will be awarded points based on their results in this league. End placements in this league will determine where teams will be placed in the Knockout Stage. You can read more about these format changes here in our post about the changes in the Champions League.

When the League stage is over, next up are the Knockout Rounds. The top 8 teams from the League Round will automatically move on, while the remaining spots will be filled following a playoff round. There will then be a random draw to determine matchups. The exception is that, at this stage, no two teams from the same country will be drawn against each other.

Watch soccer, including the Europa League, on Paramount+

Who Cares About the Europa League?

crowds players soccer game Craven Cottage Europa League quarterfinals

Fulham beat Juventus here at Craven Cottage in the 2010 Europa League quarterfinals.

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.

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Written By Paul Gerald
Paul Gerald, Owner and Founder of Groundhopper Soccer Guides · Profile
Paul started Groundhopper Soccer Guides as EnglishSoccerGuide.com in 2014. He has been to more than 250 games around the UK and Europe, and he currently lives in Madrid.

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