Jürgen Klopp couldn’t contain himself. You might want to say that it was a day that ends in Y, and you’d be right, except this was a specific day that ended in Y. It was the day Liverpool overturned a 1-0 aggregate deficit at home against Villareal to book themselves a place in the Europa League final. The Europa League, so long the sneered-at younger sibling of the Champions League, and Klopp’s boys found themselves this close to conquering it like the Visigoths of old.
In his joy and his fever – surely there’s a German compound word that combines those two? – Klopp spoke to Liverpool fans during the post-match presser. He told them their team needed them in Basel and they should turn out. Come! Come to Basel! Even if you don’t have a ticket, come!
Soon after, UEFA got in touch with the club to say, essentially, “please don’t.”
At which point both the club and Klopp had to walk the statement back and say please, please, don’t go to Basel without a ticket. If you don’t have a ticket, go down to the pub or watch at home with your family.
It’s all very reasonable and done out of an abundance of caution. Yet it speaks to something I love about the Europa League – that it contains too much, that it’s close to bursting at the seams. It’s a pot that runneth over, even if too many football fans are in the other room watching (highlights showing) Real Madrid sauntering to another piece of silverware.
One of my other loves beside soccer is professional wrestling. (Yes, I know it’s “fake.”)
For most of wrestling’s recent history the WWF/E has reigned supreme. But there was a period in the ‘90s when an upstart promotion called WCW gave them a run for their money.
The reasons for their success are more complicated than belong in a soccer article. But one thing that made WCW stand out was their strong undercard. Their competition was built around the big guys at the top of the card, and WCW had their own musclebound giants for their main events. But they also had a cruiserweight division stacked with talent from all over the pro wrestling world. Luchador stars from Mexico. Disciplined Japanese wrestlers who brought a martial arts sensibility to their craft. Extreme wrestling greats found in dingy VFW halls and on low-quality VHS tapes.
WCW’s main events continued to be dominated by the likes of Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan. But smaller guys like Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Psicosis, and Chris Jericho routinely put on thrilling matches that often made the main events seem anticlimactic.
I was thinking about that a couple weeks ago while watching both legs of Manchester City vs Real Madrid. It’s not often that I finish watching soccer and wish I could have that time back, but while the Champions League semifinals are supposed to deliver some of the best football of the season, I was nearly bored to tears. There was exactly one goal over 180 minutes of football, and it was a Manchester City own goal. It wasn’t even a funny own goal – it was just kind of sad. I rather enjoy good defensive displays – like in old-school Serie A matches – but this wasn’t an example of defensive discipline. This was just cowardly football, contested by two teams so afraid to lose that they barely bothered to play. Bayern Munich vs Atlético Madrid was marginally more entertaining, but not by much.
These were supposed to be marquee main event matchups and for the most part they fell flat on their faces.
If only European club football had a sort of undercard, where the cruiserweights and high-flyers of the sport could stage epic clashes that end up stealing the show.
You can’t really talk about the Europa League without talking about the baked-in stratification that makes it what it is. The Champions League is billed as Europe’s absolute very best, thrown together to see who comes out on top. Tune in early and you’ll see teams from the far reaches of UEFA’s jurisdiction – anyone remember Ludogorets? – but by the time you get to the knockout rounds, you know what you’re getting. Occasionally you’ll have a Premier League team fail to get out of the group, leading the football commentariat to feign shock and Footy Twitter to explode with #bantz.
There’s a lot of talk about how to “fix” the Champions League, and it mostly boils down to making it even more exclusive than it is already. People like Charlie Stillitano, the American sports executive who thinks he knows European football better than it knows itself, believes Manchester United deserves to be in the Champions League more than Leicester City, even though the latter won the league and the former will be lucky to finish fifth. There’s a growing clamor to restrict the Champions League to an elite few, with “elite” being defined more by annual revenue than by on-pitch performance.
There’s a velvet rope keeping out the unruly. The undesirables.
The Europa League is where the undesirables go to party.
A few years ago Adidas produced short videos profiling fans of teams competing in the Europa League on their away days. They’re short – both on time, quantity, and depth – but you do get an impression of what the competition means for these fans. Even for fans of Benfica, with their glorious past and Eusébio their greatest hero, travelling to the Netherlands on a Thursday is a source of pride.
The same can be said for fans of teams in countries who are shamefully underrepresented in the Champions League. People joke about the Europa League being full of teams from countries nobody’s ever heard of, or having to fly back home at an ungodly hour after playing in Latvia or Kazakhstan or the Faroe Islands. And yes, those countries get their moment in the floodlights thanks to the Europa League. But it also offers glory to fans in countries that should see more Champions League football. Like Poland. Or Bulgaria. Or Ireland.
In the overlooked corners of Europe (and, increasingly, Central Asia) you’ll find clubs with proud histories and unruly fans and players dedicated to their craft. It’s not their fault that Gazprom and Heineken can’t figure out how to market them effectively.
I’ve been trying to talk about the nobility and the pageantry of the Europa League as a neutral observer. And it is an incredible competition, even if you don’t have a dog in the fight. But I do have a dog in this fight.
Liverpool are my Premier League club. (Stop laughing.) When fans and commentators in English football want to look down on or make fun of the Europa League, they usually start by pointing a finger toward Merseyside. They talk about the Europa League as a consolation prize, a big old loser’s medal, for the teams who can’t hang with the big boys. It’s a mark of inadequacy in the English game.
Liverpool, once mighty Liverpool, whose ground is haunted by ghosts figurative and literal, have their steady presence in the Europa League held up as a representative example of how far the Reds have fallen. Manchester United fans chant “Thursday Nights/Channel 5” during Northwest Derbies in a smug attempt to put their opposition in their place. Liverpool are set alongside Tottenham; Spurs so long the “bless your heart” strivers of the Premier League, never quite good enough for Top 4 (and certainly not as good as the other team in North London), their regular appearances in the Europa League certain proof, both teams told derisively, that they were on each other’s level. That they deserved each other.
And yes, all things considered Liverpool fans would prefer to watch their team fight in the Champions League. Even cruiserweights and high-flyers keep a hungry eye on the championship belt.
But one of the reasons why Jürgen Klopp has earned the love of the fans is that he’s helped the club rediscover their identity. He has held up a mirror to the Kop and shown them what makes this club special. And as it turns out, it doesn’t have that much to do with silverware, after all.
(Don’t get me wrong, we’ll take silverware all day.)
Brendan Rodgers used the Europa League as an opportunity to play the kids. He regarded it much like many Premier League managers view the League Cup, producing middling performances in Europe in service of the all-important Top 4 finish. Klopp, however, made the Europa League a priority. He knew what a special competition it is, and he couldn’t understand why so many in England looked down on it. He convinced the players why it was important, and they bought in.
Liverpool won their group, and after relatively tame Round of 32 tie with Augsburg, the Reds sent some of the best teams in Europe packing. Manchester United in the Round of 16, who very clearly thought themselves above the competition but wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to poke at the Scousers. Klopp’s old team, Borussia Dortmund, in the quarterfinals, the tie that produced that exhilarating second leg. Villarreal, fourth place in La Liga and all too easy to underestimate (as both Real and Atleti discovered this season to their peril), were dispatched in the semifinals after an incredible second leg performance that put both Champions League ties that week to shame.
I’m rewatching the second leg of that Dortmund game right now. It’s the 39th minute, Liverpool are still down 3-1 on aggregate, and it looks hopeless. I know and you know how it ends, but I still feel an echo of that queasy feeling I had that day.
In my despair, I realized I missed something from the game. Even in the depths of hopelessness, Liverpool fans kept singing.
It’s the day before the Final and I am filled the the kind of jittery dread only a football fan can know.
For the past couple weeks something strange has been happening: my usual sources of news for English football have been talking about the Europa League as if it’s something important.
I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that an English team is in the final. Or that Manchester City blew their chance in their own European semifinal that same week. All coincidences, surely.
The English football press being what it is, of course, a lot of the coverage I’ve seen has focused on UEFA somehow disrespecting the competition by holding the Final at St. Jakob-Park, a venue deemed wholly inadequate now that an English team will be on the pitch. Or, something.
And of course, there’s the usual smarmy Liverpool takes I’ve come to expect. What it might mean for Liverpool to be back in the Champions League next season. Whether their qualification matters because it was achieved through this route rather than by Top 4, essentially suggesting Liverpool cheated. What this does for Jürgen Klopp. Whether this proves he does indeed have a magic touch. Whether Liverpool always need someone with a bit of fairy dust – whether that’s a manager like Klopp or a player like Luis Suárez – in order to amount to much of anything.
It’s all a distraction. The Europa League is a tough competition. It’s a competition built on stamina more than raw power. Getting to the final is a distinct honor. Most Liverpool fans (the ones I know, at least) will tell you that. Not everyone can hang at this level.
The Champions League final will be yet another Madrid Derby, because we don’t see enough of those, apparently. Liverpool vs Sevilla will be a rollicking contest, regardless of who wins. And it’s not entirely clear who’s going to win.
Obviously I’m going to be [expletive deleted] thrilled if Liverpool win, and I’m going to be sick with grief if they don’t. But beyond my particular emotional attachments, the Europa League final is a day that exemplifies what makes European Football wonderful. It’s the culmination of months of struggle for teams that mostly fly under the radar. It’s an opportunity for pageantry and glory for fans whose stories usually go unheard. It’s a firm rebuke against people like Charlie Stillitano, who think European football is at its best when most of it has to watch from the other side of the glass.
And football fans in neglected parts of Europe – fans of teams with histories of faded glory, teams who play in the summer, teams who served as beacons of stability through war and economic turmoil – will watch the final and know that next year, next year, it could be their side on the pitch.
That, ultimately, is what the Europa League is about. A chance to dream for teams and fans on the wrong side of the velvet rope.
It’s the 57th minute. Marco Reus just made it 4-2 on aggregate. Klopp is furious. I know and you know what happens next.
The Kop is still singing.