Starting with the 2021-22 European football season, the powers that be have created yet another continental competition, the UEFA Europa Conference League. It will be the third-tier offering underneath the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
So let’s answer the questions, what is the UEFA Europa Conference League, and how will it work?
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But first, a little context.
The Structure of European Football
As described in our video above, each country has multiple leagues and cups, with cup winners, league champions and other high-table finishers advancing into regional competitions during the following season.
In Europe, which is governed by UEFA, these competitions are called the Champions League and Europa League. To use England as an example, the top four in the Premier League go to the Champions League, while the fifth-place finishers and the FA Cup winners go to the Europa League. Sometimes an additional team will get to the Europa League if, say, the FA Cup winner also qualified for the Champions League.
All of this is what commentators mean when they talk about English teams “getting into Europe.”
Meanwhile, each country’s top league is ranked by UEFA, a number called their coefficient. England is ranked second behind Spain, with Italy, Germany and France next. This ranking determines, in the case of the Europa League, whether your entrants go straight to the group stage or have to play through qualifying rounds. England’s clubs don’t have to play in qualifying rounds in either league.
The UEFA Conference League will work much the same as the Champions League and the Europa League, but it is mainly for countries with coefficients higher than 30. It will also serve as a landing spot for certain clubs who are eliminated from the Europa League — much as the Europa League receives some teams as they drop out of the Champions League.
And meanwhile, the Europa League group stage will be reduced from 48 to 32 teams for next season. So another way of looking at the UEFA Europa Conference League is that it’s turning the lower reaches of the Europa League into a separate tournament.
If you really want to get into the weeds on Conference League qualification — and they are deep — check out the Wikipedia page about qualification for the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League.
Will English Premier League Clubs be in the UEFA Europa Conference League?
If your main interest is clubs from those high-coefficient leagues you’re familiar with — England, Spain and the rest — then the two ways that one of those clubs will wind up in the Conference League is if they finish sixth in their domestic league, win the EFL Cup in England, or come in third in their Europa League group stage.
Sixth-place finishers will also qualify from Spain, Germany, France and Italy.
Who will represent the Premier League in 2021-22?
Tottenham started out it in, based on their seventh-place Premier League finish last season (the sixth place Premier League club got bumped up into the Europa League).
Spurs entered the competition in the play-off round, which is the fourth stage of the tournament. They then qualified for the Group Stage but failed to qualify for the Knockout Stage after their last group-stage game was forfeited due to a Covid outbreak.
Leicester City, meanwhile, dropped out of the Europa League after the Group Stage and took up in the Conference League for the Knockout Stage. They beat Randers FC of Denmark to advance to the Round of 16 in March, where they will play Rennes of France on March 10 and 17.
Qualification for the UEFA Europa Conference League
So let’s take a quick stroll through the qualification process for the Conference League.
A total of 72 teams will start out in the First Qualifying Round; these will be cup winners along with first- and second-place league finishers from countries ranked below 29. For reference, here’s a look at those current UEFA coefficients:
The next two qualifying rounds are made up of the winners from the previous rounds plus a hodgepodge of clubs from slightly higher-ranked nations, as well as teams dropping out of the Champions League qualification process. This all leads to a playoff round of 44 teams, in which sixth-place clubs from the top European leagues (and the EFL Cup winner) will enter, along with some teams dropping out of the Europa League.
The group stage, then, consists of the qualifying winners plus teams falling out of the Europa League. Then there’s a knockout stage, in the usual two-game format, leading to a final on May 25, 2022 in Tirana, Albania.
Will the UEFA Europa Conference League be on Television?
In the United States, CBS has the rights to the Conference League, as they do the Champions League and Europa League. Whether they choose to actually show any of the Conference League games remains to be seen; if anything, later-round games might show up on their Paramount+ streaming service.
For a full list of broadcast rights-owners around the world, check Wikipedia.