Strap in, lads. The UEFA Europa Conference League is here, bringing intense excitement like never before!
You didn't buy it, did you? I won't blame you. The announcement of the new competition last year was met with surprise, and in some cases, ridicule. Fans familiar with the English football pyramid are familiar with the term Conference. Up until recently, the fifth tier of English football was called Conference Premier, with the leagues below called Conference North and Conference South. Clearly, the word reminded them of the lower leagues!
But then, the UEFA Conference is set to be Europe's new basement competition from next season. The last time there were three separate UEFA competitions held in the same season, was in 1998-99. Back then, the Cup Winners' Cup ran in tandem with the Champions League and UEFA Cup. Now we have a new competition, which is set to add at least 20 new teams in European competition.
UEFA Europa Conference League - What's the Structure?
As of now, 32 teams qualify for the Champions League, with a further 48 in the Europa League. Next season onwards, all three competitions will have 32 teams each. The Europa League will relinquish 16 teams to the Conference, leading to tighter competition. There will be 8 groups of four, mirroring the Champions League. The group winners will qualify directly for the Round of 16, but the runners-up will have to go through a knockout stage involving the third-placed teams coming from the Champions League groups.
Similarly, the third-placed teams from the Europa League will play knockouts against the runners-up from the Conference. The winners of the Eruopa get a spot in the Champions League for the following season; similarly, the Conference winners will get a spot in next season's Europa league, unless they have already qualified for the Champions League. No teams will qualify directly for the Conference League. Teams from the middle and lower-ranked European nations will qualify either through their league position or through domestic cups. Teams losing out in the Europa, and even the Champions League qualifiers will join into the Conference qualifiers.
UEFA Europa Conference League - Significance
The Europa doesn't command much respect now, does it? Top teams when asked to play in it mostly treat it as a hindrance to their ambitions in other competitions. Often, there isn't much competition. Sevilla have won the competition four times, including a hat-trick, since 2010, while Atletico Madrid have a further three. Chelsea have won the competition in both seasons they competed in it without losing a single game. Manchester United won the competition in 2017, and are in the final again this season. The last time a club outside the top five leagues won the competition was Porto's victory in the 2011 edition. How 'inclusive' is it?
It was rather refreshing last season to watch Wolves compete in the Europa League. Rather than groan about it, they embraced it, and went to the quarter-finals before bowing out. For Clubs like Dinamo Zagreb, Slavia Prague, Celtic, RB Salzburg and Shakhtar Donetsk, Champions League is always the aim. It doesn't happen every season, and often they find themselves relegated to the Europa after a third place finish the Champions League group. The knockout stages provide a better competition, but it is the group stages where a bevy of unknown teams make fans dread tuning into games. For example, one may find watching a game between Ludogorets Razgrad and Asteras Tripolis slightly cumbersome if one isn't a fan of either club. In the Champions League, it's likely neutrals would also tune in to watch a game like Barcelona vs Juventus.
With the Europa League already treated as second class, is adding a third tier really much sensible? Sure, the number of teams involved in European football increases. The revenue gained by a club like Austrian side Wolfsberger, for example, might increase quite a but. It is also a chance for some clubs outside top five to win a European trophy, with only slot for each of those countries. But don't expect too much fan connection from the global audience.
UEFA Europa Conference League - Who can qualify?
The top five leagues will still get a maximum of 7 European slots across the three competitions. The UEFA Conference spot has gone to the national cup competitions in these leagues. England is the only country where there are still two competitions, so the FA Cup winners get the Europa League group stage spot, while the Conference spot is for the EFL Cup winners.
Of course, in the top five leagues, the clubs wining the cups have already qualified for Europe. The Conference spot will therefore likely fall to the next best league side. We could see Liverpool, Tottenham or Everton in the competition from England. From Spain, it could be Real Betis or Villarreal, unless the latter win the Europa League this year. Lazio, Gladbach and Marseille are other sides that could feature.
There will be more participants from the Eredivisie, Scottish Premiership and so on. It also depends on which clubs drop down from Champions League or Europa league qualifiers. In its first season, it will be intriguing to watch it all unfold before our eyes.
UEFA Europa Conference League - Motivation
Certainly, UEFA's motivation to create this competition was to have more European games and more revenue. It's a common theme, one that also led to the re-imagined 'Swiss' format in the Champions League from 2024. Similar changes would be effected to the other two competitions as well. An already complicated format of the UEFA Conference will be rejigged again after three seasons in existence, and another set of permutations and combinations to understand which sides qualify.