The Big Issue - (1)
UEFA Cup - A step up, or the new Carling Cup? - By Chris Hazeldine
I remember the days, that Inter Milan match which ended on penalties, the tension at the end of the 1998 tie against Athletico Madrid. But are those days gone? Will the UEFA Cup ever be the same?
With Martin O`Neill`s team selection for the away leg of the CSKA Moscow game under severe scrutiny, it has made many consider what our priorities should be. I have always been a fan of European nights, indeed I had been to all of our home European ties in the last 15 years before this season (as I live abroad now it has become a tad more difficult this season!), and that says a lot in itself...every fan out there knows there is something special about a European night.
So what`s changed? Well there is no denying a significant swing in football over the last ten years - the impact of the Champions League, not just in spectacle but also the financial impact which has quite simply dwarfed the UEFA Cup.
The Champions League, in its current format began in 1992, but it wasn`t until 1997 that anyone apart from the Champions of each league were allowed entry. Although it`s hard to run through all the other contributing factors, adding a significant amount of non-champions into the mix increased the status, romance and spectacle of the competition. To me, the effect on the UEFA Cup that this had is clear, a competition not involving the top 4 teams from England, Spain and Italy becomes massively devalued. All of a sudden, without UEFA realising it, the UEFA Cup is Europe`s version of the League Cup...the 'Not quite good enough cup`, a cup for the 'other teams`.
From a personal perspective, I want to see Aston Villa in the Champions League, who wouldn`t? The UEFA Cup had some romance at the start of the season, the match against Ajax felt like a return to the heady heights of those games in the nineties. Then I realised Ajax weren`t quite the team they have been in the past, the truth was, with the exception of Hamburg we were in a pool of 5 with a handful of teams who were still wearing arm bands and rubber rings to keep them afloat - Not the kind of quality I remember from the UEFA Cup in days gone by.
It is no surprise that some teams in the UEFA Cup prioritise their domestic leagues, and Platini`s decision to criticise Tottenham and Aston Villa for doing this, is idiocy, because at the end of the day the UEFA Cup in its current depleted status is a construction of his own organisation. Platini has himself shown his understanding of this situation by rebranding the UEFA Cup for next season, to become the Europa League - but this will do little to hide its inadequacies. His decision to criticise teams for fielding weaker teams, when he can clearly see the competition struggling for profile is in some ways expected, but he must have realised that his complaining will only get calls of 'hypocrisy!` from anyone who pays attention to UEFA and their shortcomings.
Similarly the FA Cup has become an unnecessary competition for many teams in other battles in the Premier League. There are two sides to the story, one at the top and one at the bottom. You can`t expect a team competing for such significant financial rewards which come with staying in the Premier League or qualifying for the Champions League to show priority to the FA Cup. Or can you? The history and the heritage of the FA Cup is unique to the competition, it contains something special, but could it be that in twenty years time we are putting in the youngsters in the FA Cup to save the first team for the more important competitions? I hope not.
I was disappointed when we dropped out of the UEFA Cup, but more so about the loss to Everton in the FA Cup. For that loss I was disappointed and had nothing to fall back on, the FA Cup is something special. However with the UEFA Cup, the disappointment was quickly removed and replaced by confusion and realisation...confusion because Europe didn`t seem to matter, and the realisation came shortly after...that I felt the UEFA Cup has become Europe`s version of the League Cup...and I wasn`t particularly bothered.