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Has the UEFA Europa Conference League Been a Success?

In 2018, when announcement of the creation of the UEFA Europa Conference League was made public, it was met with negativity and dread from football fans. With the thought of even more games and a third tier European competition, many couldn’t help but feel that this was just another cash grab from UEFA.

Last night, the inaugural season of the Europa Conference League came to a close in Tirana, Albania, with José Mourinho’s A.S. Roma taking the trophy home after beating Feyenoord 1-0 at the Arena Kombëtare.

Nicolò Zaniolo’s winning goal as Roma beat Feyenoord 1-0 in the Europa Conference League Final

As the football season comes to a close, the question about UEFA’s newest competition is a simple one, has it been a success?

Has the Europa Conference League Been Successful?

When asked why the competition was introduced, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said:

The new UEFA club competition makes UEFA’s club competitions more inclusive than ever before. There will be more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin

It is fair to say that UEFA achieved this, with the Conference League prodividing clubs from Estonia, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan and Armenia a chance to play in European competition.

With a mixture of lesser known clubs around the continent and established European football regulars, the Conference League looked like it could potentially end up being an easy ride for those with the experience, but that certainly was not the case.

The stand-out surprise team of the tournament was Norwegian side FK Bodø/Glimt. Having never reached the group stage of any European competition previously, it was fair to assume that Glimt would not go too far in this year’s Conference League. As the competition got underway, the Norwegian club began catching the eyes of fans.

Kjetil Knutsen’s side finished the group stage unbeaten and miraculously destroyed eventual champions Roma 6-1 in Norway, shocking the world. Glimt would go on to defeat Celtic and AZ Alkmaar in the knockout stage, before eventually falling to Roma in the quarter-finals, losing 5-2 on aggregate to Mourinho’s men.

Despite falling short, Glimt is a great example of why the Conference League has been a benefit to European football; it gives clubs from smaller nations the experience of going on a European run and potentially having the chance to achieve glory.

Supporters of Bodo/Glimt during the UEFA Conference League Quarter-Finals leg 2 match between AS Roma and Bodo/Glimt at Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy on 14 April 2022. (Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Is the Conference League Worth Watching?

The main issue for the Conference League is that the matches are played on a Thursday, the same day as the Europa League. Most football fans would be more likely to watch a Europa League game over the Conference league, unless their side is playing in the latter.

Earlier this year, I decided to head to Rome to see the experience of a Conference League game firsthand. I wanted to see if these matches had that special European football night feel to them. The match I decided to go to was A.S. Roma against Ukrainian side FC Zorya Luhansk.

With the matchday ticket only costing €14 and a flight to Rome only putting me back  €10, the opportunity was too good to turn down. Despite arriving at the Stadio Olimpico soaked to the bone due to the uncharacteristic thunderstorm that was taking place in the Italian capital, I was still optimistic that I would see some entertaining football.

Having been at Old Trafford just weeks prior to witness Manchester United’s 3-2 comeback against Atalanta in the UEFA Champions League, I would have been happy for the match in Rome to be even half as entertaining as that.

To my surprise, it was just as entertaining! Although the stadium was not a full house, the Roma fans made sure they were heard, belting out their club’s anthem “Roma Roma Roma” before kick-off. With a beer in my hand, sat in the Curva Nord end of the stadium, I was ready for kick-off.

It did not take long for the I Giallorossi to get going. Just 15 minutes in, Carles Pérez opened the scoring, with Nicolò Zaniolo doubling Roma’s lead before half-time with a great finish.

Despite the home side’s goals, Zorya played good football and the few hundred away fans who made the grueling mid-week journey from Ukraine made themselves heard. An impressive second-half brace from Tammy Abraham sealed the victory for Roma who ended up 4-0 winners on the night.

Nicolò Zaniolo’s impressive finish to give Roma a 2-0 lead

As I got on the bus back into the city after the match, I was impressed with the atmosphere and quality of the game. Going into the fixture I really didn’t know what to expect from the Conference League, but it was a great experience watching a good quality game of European football for an amazing price.

Quality On Show Throughout

I followed the rest of the tournament as it progressed into the latter stages, with the quality of the match-ups only improving. Ties such as Marseille vs Feyenoord and Leicester City vs PSV Eindhoven provided high quality football that was also very entertaining to watch on a Thursday night.

The competition has done well to keep the important feeling of a European night that there is in the other two UEFA tournaments. Another key reason for the competitiveness of the competition is that the winner also automatically qualifies for the Europa League the following season, which may save a team from having to play multiple qualifiers in pre-season.

This is not to forget the main reason teams play in these competitions, for silverware. For this season’s winners, Roma’s case, it is the club’s first title in 14 years and their first ever European trophy. The Conference League has provided teams with another reason to stay competitive in Europe and a chance to create history.

Is There Room for Improvement?

Of course there is. For its inaugural season, the Conference League could not have gone much better, but there is still room to improve and elevate the competition, like there is for most football tournaments.

With this year’s final being hosted in Albania and next season being in the Czech Republic, the Conference League is also helping European finals to broaden their locations.

As clubs prepare to play the first rounds of qualifiers for European competition in the coming months, it may be worth keeping your eye on the Conference League next season, with entertaining matches and high quality football, there is plenty of promise for Europe’s third tier competition.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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