By Alex Labidou,
How many people have actually watched Fulham’s Remarkable Run In Europe?
Cinderella stories don’t exist in European soccer. The sport is not littered with Goliaths being slain by Davids. Due to a system where resources are everything and revenue sharing doesn’t exist, the reality is the big teams usually have a stranglehold on all possible trophies. Don’t tell that to Fulham though, the tiny club from northwest London has had its sling shot armed and loaded throughout its Europa League campaign.
After another above all odds performance, flawlessly defending a top scoring Hamburg SV side to a goalless draw in their home ground, the possibility of Fulham reaching Europa League final is very real. The irony of their result could be the fact that they will be in the very same stadium on 12th of May if they succeed in the second leg at home. On the other side will be the winners of the Liverpool/Atletico Madrid tie and in either case should be a very exciting match. This is exactly what UEFA president Michel Platini intended when reformatting the competition’s predecessor, the UEFA cup. Yet the changes can’t stop there. In order to make the Europa league matter, to make it more significant than a second place competition or Europe’s version of the NIT, UEFA has to allow the competition’s winner to participate in the next year’s Champions League playoff format.
The UEFA Cup has a very prestigious history but has stagnated over the past decade due to a variety of reasons. Up until 1992, only the champions of the domestic league could participate in the Champions League. This allowed the UEFA Cup to host some of the top teams in Europe and there was always a diverse mixture of franchises and locales due to the openness of the tournament. When the Champions League was expanded to include domestic runner ups based on co-efficients, the UEFA Cup took a significant hit. After all, if the Champions League can offer significant prize money and television rights across the globe, who would want to participate in a second tier competition that offers substantially less?
This season, Tottenham’s head coach Harry Redknapp actually celebrated the fact that his team wouldn’t have any European ties this season and this is coming from a man who wants his team to play Champions League football next season. The reasoning behind the 63-year old English manager’s excitement was the fact that his team would be participating in fewer games and that the prize money of the Europa League wasn’t worth the potential injuries caused by additional wear and tear. This is an issue that affects all of European soccer. Every team in the continent would love to pursue the Champions League if possible, but very few teams take pride in being a part of the Europa League. If Platini were to take the ultimate gamble and add a significant incentive, the competition would have a huge upswing in interest as teams would risk it all.
For years the formula of reaching the Champions League has been simple. Either inherit a wealthy owner who has the resources to spend millions of dollars consistently every year or borrow against your teams value in the hope that the competition’s revenue would even the balance. Year after year, horror stories continue to unfold about teams who were too ambitious and gambled their financial futures to have a spot in the world’s most prestigious club competition. Look at Leeds United, a team that for years was one of England’s vanguard teams now languishing in the country’s third division. Being overambitious comes with a great cost and now Liverpool is learning the same lesson as the once face of English soccer will miss out on Champions League football next season and the significant revenue it brings. If the Europa League provided an alternative route to the Champions League, it is possible that teams would be able to spend considerably less to reach their ambitions hence less teams would be willing to mortgage their futures for a short term gain. If Platini were to change his stance and if a team like Fulham were to actually win the competition, the landscape of European soccer would changed forever as small teams would have an opportunity to have access to a new source of income and gain global recognition. Year after year, the same complaints of lack of open competition continue to be a problem on the continent, this could be the solution.
Have you ever been to Craven Cottage? Located in a small residential neighborhood, the stadium has such an unassuming aura that you could almost mistake the venue for a pre-war warehouse. The brick exterior of the stadium fits it perfectly in a neighborhood of brownstones. It is the perfect local soccer experience. Imagine if Fulham were able to host a world renowned team like Real Madrid at the Cottage. To have a team with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas at the intimate ground that hosts 25,700 boisterous fans. Magic can happen and it is for those reasons that UEFA must reconsider its stance.