Thursday, August 5, 2010

I don't know exactly when it was that I fell out of love with the UEFA Cup. It was certainly well before all the Europa League nonsense. It may have been when the competition added the group stages and became the 'losers cup' by admitting all the Champions League failures.

The UEFA Cup was once a glorious competition, in that it gave smaller clubs and their fans the chance of a European adventure. As much as we hate to admit it, you have to envy the Raith Rovers fans that got to see their club play in the Faroes, Iceland and Germany. You can only sit back and wonder "what if", had the competition existed immediately after the war and East Fife's three League Cup triumphs had seen us take part.

Apart from watching some of Fulham's magical exploits in the latter stages of last season's tournament, I had no interest in catching any of the action, although actually finding it to watch on my TV over here was hard enough due to a bizarre rights deal.

The Europa League, as it stands now, completely devalues the legacy of a competition once held with much esteem. I have a mate who is an avid Ipswich Town fan. Try telling him that his team's 1981 final victory wasn't a major win in an important competition.

Nowadays, like so many things, the competition is all about money and the bigger clubs. Putting in the Champions League third place group teams was the start of the slippery slope, but now that Celtic can crash out of the Champions League at the first hurdle, but still get the chance of European competition in the Europa League is just farcical.

Why don't UEFA just come out and say, look lads, we only want the top teams showcased to the rest of the world, so why don't the rest of you just piss off.

That would then allow all these top teams to piss all over the UEFA Cup's heritage by finding it a pain in the ass and fielding weaker sides so they can get knocked out anyway. Seriously, what is the point in these teams taking part when it's a chore to them?

As soon as the competition added in group stages, you knew it wasn't about the football or the fans any more.

But it doesn't have to be this way. UEFA can instill importance and excitement back into the tournament in one fell swoop. All they need to do is return it to the knockout format that it used to be and should still be.

At a bit of a loose end this evening and craving a football fix, I thought I'd have a scout around and see what action I could find online, knowing it was the Europa League Qualifying Round.

With Motherwell coasting early doors and Hibernian continuing Scotland's inglorious European failures, it was time to find a tie that could at least provide some entertainment. Step forward Montpellier Hérault Sport Club of France taking on Hungarian side Győri Egyetértés Torna Osztály Football Club.

Apart from being a mouthful of a tie, it was two sides that clearly wanted to continue their participation in the competition.

I'd been following Montpellier a little last term as the underdogs done good. Promoted from the French second division in 2008/09, they took Ligue 1 by storm last season and were a breath of fresh air to the dire state that much of French football was in. They challenged for the top spot for a lot of the season, sitting in second and a Champions League berth, before slipping down to fifth and a place in the Europa League. They also have a charismatic owner who prefers to sit on the bench as opposed to taking his place in the corporate boardroom.

Taking the pitch this evening in their blue and orange home strip (think Queens Park away last season but with orange shorts), it was hard not to root for them, looking as they did like giant, walking Irn Bru bottles.

They'd won the first leg 1-0 in Hungary so were favourites to progress at home until Croatian defender Valentin Babic fired the visitors level five minutes before half time. Tied 1-1 on aggregate and with no further goals in the second half or in extra time, penalty kicks ensued and the Hungarians went through 4-3, sending the small band of Gyori ETO fans behind the goal into raptures.

That's excitement. That's entertainment. That's what the Europa League should be about and that's what knockout ties create. So c'mon UEFA, fix this mess, stop treating the competition as a test ground and losers playground and get some excitement back in to it before it's too late and you kill off all enthusiasm for it all together.


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