Five Things to Look Out for in the Inaugural Uefa Europa Conference League in 2021

Tuesday 15th June 2021, the year-delayed UEFA Euro 2020 competition is fully underway in 11 cities across Europe. Understandably, hidden away amongst all the European Championships fever in UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, the 1st qualifying round for the new UEFA Europa Conference League competition took place. The inaugural edition of European football’s new third-tier competition is the culmination of two and a half seasons of work from the initial announcement of a new UEFA competition on 2nd December 2018.


One of the distinctive features of the Europa Conference League is that unlike its more prestigious brothers, the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, every side has to qualify for the group stages of the competition with no side gaining automatic entry. With the 1st Qualification Round, set to take place between 8th July and 15th July, here are five things to look out for in the inaugural competition.


Russia & Turkey Need to Rebuild Their Reputation


The introduction of a new competition, one specifically designed for clubs outside of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues gives an instant redemption chance for clubs and in some cases, leagues who underachieved in European competition the season prior. Two leagues outside of the “Big Five” that fit the bill of needing a reset and needing to use the new Europa Conference League to rebuild the reputation of their clubs are Russia and Turkey.


When one looks at the UEFA co-efficient ratings of both the Russian Premier League & Turkish Super Lig over the past five completed season of UEFA European club competition, to say it makes grim reading would be an understatement. From each UEFA European club competition from 2016/17 to 2020/21, Russia’s coefficient rating each year is as follows: 9.200, 12.600, 7.583, 4.666 and 4.333.


The UEFA Europa Conference League: A New Iteration of Bygone Continental Competitions


Russia’s rating is grim, however, Turkey is enduring an even larger decline of its clubs in European competition. In the last five completed European club competition seasons, the UEFA coefficient points scored by Turkish clubs read: 9.700, 6.800, 5.500, 5.000 and 3.100. The last five seasons in European competition have seen Turkish clubs score continuously lower amounts of co-efficient points.


However, whilst this is inevitably bad news for both, worse could be on the horizon in the upcoming years. UEFA’s coefficient system which decides the rankings of domestic leagues, how many teams in each league qualify for each European competition and crucially, which stage each qualifying team enters at is a continuously evolving grading. The national leagues are graded over a five-season timeframe with total points gathered over the period determining the rating of each league. When a new European season starts, the earliest season’s results from the previous five seasons is taken off their ranking. 


Currently, to demonstrate how the UEFA coefficient continuously works, the 2021/22 European club competition season is about to start now with early qualifying rounds for UEFA’s club competitions.  Therefore, co-efficient points earned by clubs for their country in the 2016/17 season are now discounted from the five year ranking. At the start of the 2022/23 European club competition season, the co-efficient points gained from the 2017/18 season will be discounted & so on and so forth.


The 9.200 co-efficient points rating gathered by Russian clubs in European competition in 2016/17 is now wiped from their rating. This was their 2nd highest ranking of the last five completed European seasons. At the start of 2022/23, the impressive 12.600 co-efficient rating points won by Russian clubs in European competitions in 2017/18 will be wiped from their rating. Immediately, come the start of 2022/23, this will drop Russia’s club co-efficient down the ratings massively. With the absence of the points gathered in 2016/17 and 2017/18, Russia will drop from its current rating of 8th best league in UEFA down to 13th


The impact of this is significant, a drop to 13th in the UEFA rankings for Russia will mean the league loses an automatic qualification spot for the UEFA Champions League in future seasons for the Russian Premier League’s domestic champions. The champions of the league would therefore have to go through Champions League qualification rounds the following season.


Like Russia, recent poor results from Turkish clubs in Europe looks set to cost them and the impact is even more severe. For the start of the 2022/23 season, the Turkish Super Lig would be ranked 20th in UEFA, a ranking not even high enough for a Turkish side to enter into the Europa League by virtue of league position or domestic cup win.


These aforementioned theoretical ratings for Russia and Turkey come 2022/23 could change as no-one knows how their UEFA tournament-qualified sides will do in 2021/22’s European competitions. Therefore, this upcoming season offers a chance of redemption and coefficient damage limitation for both leagues. With the Conference League barely containing any sides from the so-called “Big Five” leagues, it should, in theory, give the representatives of both countries a potentially better chance to get higher co-efficient ratings on the board once again.


Moments of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup – Part 1: Slovan Bratislava 1968/69


Russia’s two representatives in the new Europa Conference League are Rubin Kazan, who enter in the Third Qualifying Round & PFC Sochi who enter in the Second Qualifying Round and who have been drawn against Azerbaijani outfit Kesla FK. Sochi are European debutants, whereas Rubin Kazan are back in European competition of any description for the first time since the 2015/16 season. 


Turkey’s Europa Conference League participants are Trabzonspor, one of the country’s so-called “Big Four” clubs alongside Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas who enter at the Third Qualification Round and Sivasspor, who enter at the Second Qualifying Round. Trabzonspor have been frequent participants in European competition over the 2000’s and 2010’s. Sivasspor, on the other hand, will play European football for only the fourth time in their history in 2021/22.


Out of all of UEFA’s nations, there is no doubt Russia and Turkey are feeling the heat most when it comes to urgently needing to improve their co-efficient going forward. The new Europa Conference League offers a shot at redemption, no pressure then!


Will Teams from Leagues outside of Europe’s So-Called “Big Five” Emerge as Frequent Winners?


When analysing the creation of the UEFA Europa Conference League, one has to analyse the situation in UEFA’s other two club competitions in recent times. Whilst the so-called “Big Five” leagues have dominated European competition since the rebranding of the European Cup into the Champions League in 1992, this domination has become so profound in recent European seasons. 


After the 6th and final matches of the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stage, not one of the sixteen teams that made the knockout round of the competition were from a non-big five league, the first time in the Champions League era that this had ever happened. FC Porto’s 2003/04 UEFA Champions League triumph remains the last triumph from a side outside of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues in Europe’s elite club competition. 


Whilst the 2000s saw the emergence of the “super clubs” who would go on to dominate club football in the modern-day era, this same decade saw the Europa League at its most diverse when it came to different winners from different countries. In this decade, astonishingly, there were more Europa League winners (6) from non-big five leagues than from the “Big Five” (just 4).


Those 6 winners from outside of the “Big Five” were represented by 5 different countries and were all six different clubs: Galatasaray of Turkey in 2000, Feyenoord of the Netherlands in 2002, FC Porto of Portugal in 2003, CSKA Moscow & Zenit St Petersburg of Russia in 2005 & 2008 respectively and finally Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine in 2009. In addition, there were also three beaten finalists from outside of the “Big Five” too in Celtic, Sporting CP and Rangers in 2003, 2005 and 2008 respectively. 


Breaking the Ceiling: CSKA Moscow’s 2005 UEFA Cup Win


However, in recent seasons, the Europa League looks to be following the Champions League in becoming a competition totally dominated by the “Big Five”. The last winners of the Europa League from outside the “Big Five” were FC Porto, who defeated SC Braga in an all-Portuguese final in Dublin in 2010/11. Every single final since has been won by either a Spanish or English club. A return to a trend experienced in the 1990s when 8 of the 10 winners of the UEFA Cup that decade were Serie A clubs. A domination that led to the coining of a phrase that the competition “only spoke Italian”.


The valuation in TV broadcast money over the last decade or so in the “Big Five” leagues has skyrocketed, this combined with the emergence, particularly in England of a so-called “Big Six” has lead to this domination of the Europa League by the big leagues. Another factor one cannot ignore is the presence of large-sized Champions League group stage drop-outs clubs in the Europa League knockouts such as a Manchester United, Chelsea FC or Atletico de Madrid for example.


What is noteworthy about the Europa Conference League is that the “Big Five” leagues will only have one participating team each in the competition. There will of course be third-placed sides from the UEFA Europa League group stages dropping into the Conference League knockout stages. However, these are, despite the streamlining of the Europa League still very unlikely to be sides such as Manchester United, Chelsea or Atletico de Madrid. 


The lower calibre of post-Christmas group stage drop outs into the Conference League knockouts comparative to those in the Europa League should alongside the “Big Five” leagues only getting one spot each in the Conference League enhance the chances of a non-big five league winner. 


Furthermore, in the inaugural edition of the Europa Conference League, only four sides from the “Big Five” will be in the competition from the initial qualifying rounds. Villarreal’s victory in the 2020/21 Europa League final saw them straight into the Champions League group stage and Spain’s Conference League spot will for 2021/22 be left blank.

How Will Teams from the So-Called “Big Five” Leagues Approach the Inaugural Conference League?


The four “Big Five” league participants in the new competition’s debut are Tottenham Hotspur of England, AS Roma of Italy, Stade Rennais (Rennes) of France and finally 1. FC Union Berlin of Germany. Both Tottenham and AS Roma are regular participants in European competition. The North London outfit have qualified for European football of some description in every season since 2009/10. Whereas AS Roma have only missed qualification to European competition in just two seasons stretching back to 1998/99.


Rennes and Union Berlin, however, qualify for Europe on a historically much less frequent basis. Despite the 2021/22 season being the fourth straight campaign Rennes have qualified for continental competition, they have since the new millennium only played in Europe eight times, excluding UEFA Intertoto Cup participation.


For Union Berlin, 2021/22 will be only the second ever time in a re-unified Germany that they will play in Europe. Die Eisernen (The Iron Ones) last qualified for European competition in 2001/02 when they participated in the UEFA Cup/Europa League by virtue of being DFB Pokal runners-up in 2000/01.


How Union Berlin Sealed European Football for the First Time Ever


As Tottenham and Roma are considered two of the modern-day “Big Six” in both the Premier League and Serie A, minimum objectives for both of these clubs in each league season is to try and qualify for the following season’s Champions League via a top four finish. If these clubs do not manage this via league placing, yet they are still participating in that particular season’s Europa League, winning that trophy opens up a route to Champions League qualification.


The winners of the Europa Conference League get a place in the following season’s Europa League.  Therefore, based on this, it remains to be seen whether this competition will be viewed as attractive for them to take seriously and juggle alongside a league campaign. One suspects that when both sides play in their Conference League matches that their squads will be heavily rotated unless either or both were to reach the latter stages of the competition.


Rennes and Union Berlin, however, may view the Conference League differently. Rennes have been ever-presents in Ligue 1 since the 1994/95 season. Since the new millennium, the Brittany outfit have only finished in the bottom half of Ligue 1 just four times. Given these aforementioned statistics and Ligue 1 clubs’ historically disappointing lack of success in European competition, there is every chance Rennes could opt to take the Conference League seriously. 


They are a club firmly entrenched in Ligue 1. Therefore, combining a deep run in Europe with domestic league matches would likely not see them struggling at the bottom of the league barring a truly disastrous season. Fans at Roazhon Park would likely forgive a 12th or 13th placed finish in Ligue 1 if it meant Rennes reached the final of the Conference League and had a chance to win a trophy. 


Furthermore, winning the Europa Conference League would offer a route into the Europa League in 2022/23 for Rennes. Something they may struggle to gain frequently via league placing with AS Monaco, Olympique Lyonnais & Olympique de Marseille all looking strongly entrenched in both the Champions League & Europa League qualification spots via the league for the upcoming seasons.


With regards to Union Berlin, how they juggle European and domestic commitments will be a test for them in 2021/22. This is of course a club for whom 2021/22 will be only the 3rd season at 1. Bundesliga level since German reunification in 1990. It is also worth remembering that Union’s qualification for the Europa Conference League proved a huge shock considering they reportedly had one of the 1. Bundesliga’s lowest budgets for the 2020/21 season.


Most supporters of Die Eisernen for 2021/22 in the 1. Bundesliga would likely accept and understand the situation if Union suffered a drop in position given their overachievement in 2020/21. Just surviving in 1. Bundesliga with their low budget is considered a significant achievement for Union. Just consider the second tier 2. Bundesliga for 2021/22 contains FC Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, 1 FC Nurnberg, Hamburger SV & Dynamo Dresden, clubs much larger historically in stature.


Based on modest expectations at Union and the understanding that qualification for European competition will be a rare occurrence, they also may opt to treat the Europa Conference League seriously. Ensuring the expected drop-off in the league would not be too severe to put them in potential relegation danger whilst embarking on a long European campaign would be something Union would have to treat with caution.


Group Stage Winners Receiving a Bye to the Round of Sixteen Is a Long-Overdue Initiative


For followers of other sports leagues such as the National Football League (NFL), byes for highest-ranked teams in post-season playoffs has been commonplace for years. In the 2020 NFL playoffs as an example, the two highest ranked teams in the regular season (one in the AFC conference, the other in the NFC conference) both received a bye for the first round of the post-season playoffs.


The concept of byes in football and especially UEFA’s European competitions has tended to solely be focused around certain teams in higher-ranked European leagues entering a UEFA club competition at a latter round owing to their country’s UEFA co-efficient rating. A method very similar to that deployed in some tennis tournaments outside of the four Grand Slam events where higher-ranked individual players get byes to a latter round.


Moments of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup – Part 2: The Barcelona Bears — Rangers 1971/722



However, 2021/22 in UEFA club tournaments will for the first time see the NFL bye concept deployed in two of its competitions. In both the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, the eight teams who finish top of their groups in the group stages will receive a bye to the Round of Sixteen. Group runners-up in both the Europa League & Europa Conference League will go into a two-legged knockout round play-off with the 3rd placed teams from the Champions League and Europa League group stages respectively to decide the final eight teams for the Round of Sixteen.


This is a welcome long-overdue initiative. The streamlining of the Europa League group stages from 2021-22 onwards from 48 teams to 32 teams with the introduction of the Europa Conference League facilitates the ability to give byes to group winners. A bye to the Round of Sixteen by virtue of winning a group is much more reward for good performance than playing in the Round of 32 against an unseeded opponent.


In addition, the introduction of byes for group winners gives teams extra incentive to treat all group games seriously in both competitions. By winning their group, a team can also have the additional benefit of shaving two games off their fixture calendar. An initiative advantageous to clubs when it comes to keeping players fresh, avoiding midweek travel and having an extra two full midweeks undisrupted to work on new tactics, gameplay & formations on the training pitch.


Finally, leagues which will welcome the introduction of byes for group winners will be those whose league calendar is a summer one (operating from March to November) or leagues which have long winter breaks owing to the meteorological weather conditions in said country. When the Round of 32 starts in the Europa League in past seasons, clubs still in European competition from “summer leagues” or leagues with long winter breaks have sometimes struggled. 


Because these leagues either only start new seasons in late February/early March (eg: Sweden & Norway) or resume their seasons after a long winter break (eg: Russia & Ukraine), their sides still in European competitions can be short of match fitness when the Europa League Round of 32 arrives. Playing friendlies in either pre-season or mid-season training programs isn’t ideal preparation for European competition fixtures against opponents from leagues whose winter break is not as long and who have been playing competitive fixtures for months.


One look at the Europa League and Europa Conference League knockout round schedules demonstrate how fundamental it could prove for teams in the aforementioned leagues highlighted above to  win their groups to get the byes. The schedule for the knockout round play-off (in essence a Round of 32) shows both legs of the tie taking place on 17th February 2022 and 24th February 2022 respectively. Whereas the dates for the two ties in the Round of Sixteen in both competitions take place on 10th March 2022 and 17th March 2022 respectively. 


Starting a season after pre-season or restarting a season after a long winter break in the last week in February and being able to play two or three competitive fixtures to build up match sharpness before a vital European tie could be vital to a team’s chance of a long European run. It’s preferable to still not having started or restarting a domestic league season & competitive fixtures and facing a fully match fit opponent in the knockout round play-off.

Will This New Competition Gain Traction or Will It Get Permanently Left in the Shadows of the Champions League and Europa League?


Around 18 months ago, I had a mixed opinion on the introduction of the new Europa Conference League, very much different to my overall very positive opinion today. My previous reservations were increased oversaturation of the fixture list & a cheapening of European qualification due to initial thoughts too many teams from leagues would end up qualifying for Europe.


Why Two-Legged Champions League Ties Are Still the Way Forward


Having carefully studied the format, how there will only be one team from each of the “Big Five” leagues & no more than seven teams in Europe per country, I have withdrawn these reservations. I am now extremely excited about this competition. Perhaps the only reservation that I expressed back in February 2020 that at least partially still remains with me today when it comes to the Europa Conference League is what sort of media attention will this new tournament attract.


There is no doubt in recent seasons, following two consecutive nights of Champions League football, a third straight night of European football with the Europa League with not as many elite level teams can at times struggle to get as much attention. So there is the understandable worry that a third tier competition could along with the Europa League struggle to attract viewing attention.


The “Big Five” leagues are the main sources of football viewing, not just in their domestic markets but in each other’s markets and around the world. One does suspect, conditional upon them qualifying for the group stages that the main audience for the Conference League in each of the “Big Five” leagues’ countries will be their representatives in the competition. Teams such as Tottenham and Roma, each of whom have a decent level of supporters domestically could help the competition attract decent viewing audiences.


However, it is also important to acknowledge over the past decade or so the huge increase in football fans across the globe developing an interest in either football from a particular country or a particular country’s league. Competitions and Leagues such as Major League Soccer (MLS), Chinese Super League (CSL), Japanese J League & the Copa Libertadores have all developed a steady and strong following and continue to grow. 


All it would take is some memorable moments or matches from the Europa Conference League’s inaugural edition and it could easily see the new competition gain a relatively strong following outside of fans from the clubs involved. Alongside seeing star players and dynasty teams, there is also appetite to see competitions which produce a diverse number of different winners over a number of seasons.


The format of the Europa Conference League and the distribution of qualification spots per country for the new competition allows this aforementioned possibility. It’s a bold gamble that UEFA have taken in opting to run a third club competition once again. Will it pay off?


By: Richard David Pike

Featured Image: @Juanffrann / Plumb Images / Anadolu Agency