The group stage of the 2022/23 UEFA Europa Conference League is nearly upon us. For that reason, it is appropriate to revisit the pros and cons of having this new competition.
For the few really big clubs in the competition, such as Tottenham Hotspur last season, or possibly CF Villareal this season (assuming they qualify), there is no doubt that it could be more of an unwelcome burden than anything else. With a long season ahead, including an unprecedented FIFA World Cup break in the middle of it, it just adds extra stress of more travel and play for players and coaches at the highest level. At the same time, as AS Roma showed this past May, even for the big teams it offers a unique opportunity to win European silverware that might otherwise prove elusive.
When it comes to the true minnows of the game for whose benefit the UEFA Europa Conference League was mainly started, there are no two sides to it. The tournament has been a complete success without any doubt. There is no other plausible scenario in which a club from tiny Gibraltar such as Lincoln Red Imps FC would qualify for the group stage of a major European club competition. They achieved this amazing feat last year, in the inaugural season of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
The biggest Cinderella story of the previous season was the Norwegian outfit Bodø/Glimt. They thrilled football fans throughout the world by reaching the quarterfinals. Since then, they have won their domestic league and as of this writing, they are even on course to qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in club history in the upcoming season.
Yet teams do not necessarily have to qualify for the Europa Conference League proper, to absolutely electrify their city, country and even the larger surrounding geographic region. This was proven last summer when FK Velež Mostar of Bosnia and Herzegovina reached the third qualifying round of the competition before ultimately falling short to Swedish side IF Elfsborg. Velež had arguably played the best football in the highly competitive league of former Yugoslavia. They had had their Golden Age in the 1970s when the team even reached the quarterfinals of the old UEFA Cup.
But in independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, they struggled in the lower divisions of the new nation’s football pyramid until fairly recently. Their run to the third qualifying round of last season’s Europa Conference League captured the imagination of people living in all areas of former Yugoslavia. This year, it is Velež’s crosstown rivals Zrinski that have made the headlines. The latter even reached the playoff round in Conference League qualifiers. There they won their home leg 1-0 vs. Slovak side Slovan Bratislava. If they can keep that lead in Thursday’s away leg, Zrinski will become the first Bosnian team to qualify for the group stage of a European competition.
Going back to the topic at hand, even this one example shows why the UEFA Europa Conference League is probably a net positive. Unlike the UEFA Europa League, much less the UEFA Champions League, the Europa Conference League only offers one spot each to teams from England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. It is a tournament for Europe’s best of the rest.
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