It may have missed most football fans attention but as of next season there will be another European club competition. The European Conference, or UECL for short, is due to start in early July and will conclude with the final in the Arena Kombëtare in Tirana, Albania on the 25th May 2022, if you really want to be organised.
For those old enough to remember, there did used to be three proper European Club competitions (sorry West Ham fans but I am discounting the Intertoto Cup, and the Anglo-Italian Cup which led to some feisty affairs twenty years ago), with the European Cup (read Champions League) and the UEFA Cup (Europa League) supplemented by the European Cup Winners Cup. It was such a simple affair, with 32 teams playing a straight 2-legged knock-out competition, meaning if you won four ties, you were in the final. The history of the tournament is worth a read and I can thoroughly recommend A Tournament Frozen in Time by Steven Scragg.
But back to the UECL. What is it? Who can enter? What are the rules and what is the theme tune?
If there wasn’t enough teams already playing in European competition then this tournament will see even more clubs fielding weakened sides in the Summer holidays. In total, 184 clubs will take part in the competition, split as follows based on the UEFA ranking of the country:
- Associations 1–5 each have one team qualify.
- Associations 6–15 and 51–55 each have two teams qualify.
- Associations 16–50 (except Liechtenstein) each have three teams qualify.
- Liechtenstein have one team qualify (Liechtenstein organises only a domestic cup and no domestic league).
- The 20 teams eliminated from the 2021–22 UEFA Champions League and 26 teams eliminated from the 2021–22 UEFA Europa League are transferred to the Europa Conference League
As England is currently ranked 2 in the UEFA coefficient, we will get one direct place in the competition, whilst Wales and Northern Ireland, ranked 47th and 48th respectively, will each get three places. In addition, should any British sides not make it through the qualification stages of the two other tournaments they could drop into the competition.
As if it was that simple. Remember, this has been the brainchild of someone in the same department who created the Nations League structure.
The first qualifying round will feature 70 clubs from the nations ranked 30 and below. Due to the nature of the Summer/Winter leagues, some clubs have already secured their spot in the first round in July to be played on the 8th July including Dinamo Batumi and Dila Gori (Georgia), Paide Linnameeskond (Estonia) and Sligo Rovers and Bohemians (Republic of Ireland).
The second qualifying round will feature the 35 winners, 20 teams eliminated from the Champions League early rounds and a further 55 sides from countries ranked from 6th based on league positions. Belarussia’s Torpedo-BelAZ Zhondino, Kazakhstan’s Shakhter Karangandy and Tobol will be joined by more well known clubs including IF Elsborg, Rosenborg and Molde.
Ready for another round? This is where there is now a Champions Path and a Main Path that will feature 62 teams and then it goes to the Play-off round where the teams from Spain, Germany, France, Portugal, Italy and England will join. As England is the only top league at the moment that has two cup competitions, the spot will be awarded to the League (Carabao) Cup winner – Manchester City or Spurs. Good news for Spurs fans perhaps, based on the current league position, that they will be playing in Europe again next year. Should they win their play-off round tie they will go into group stages along with 31 other teams. If they come out of the group stages unscathed, then it is a straight knock-out tie until the final. Should they then win the final, they get a place in the 2022/23 Europa League Group phase.
Why are UEFA doing this? Part of it is to allow them to reduce the number of clubs, and games, in the Europa League, moving from 48 teams in the group stages to 32 to mirror the Champions League structure without simply kicking clubs out of contention. It will also see prize money flowing into the lower ranked UEFA nations, which can only be a good thing.
Quite how seriously the top ranked nations will take it is open to discussion. As things stand at the moment, Man City/Spurs would join Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Villarreal, Lens and Benfica, which is a pretty impressive line-up, something that UEFA would be very happy with.
Only time will tell on the success of the tournament. Hopefully, the early start to the competition will not deter clubs from fielding strong squads. The mistake of the ill-rated Intertoto Cup that ran from 1995 to 2008 was that the tournament started as early as late June when many clubs were just starting pre-season. The UECL will see the play-off stage, where the top nations enter, won’t start until late August, when their domestic seasons had already started.