The UEFA Europa League is the second tier continental competition in Europe which has appeared in different names in different eras. UEFA has come up with three distinguished names from its earliest edition in 1955 up to now. The contestants are taken based on their position in the previous domestic competitions, as well as the winner of national cups. The winners of the Europa League are rewarded with one automatic slot at the group stage for the following season’s UEFA Champions League to raise its prestige after the skyrocketing popularity of the top tier European tournament.
Unlike, UCL and any other regional competitions, Europa League was first held for a non-football reason. The tournament was contested for promoting the trade fair. Thus, the teams playing in the competition were not based on their position, but their presence in the trade affair. Back then, there was a rule called ‘one club, one country’, which was quite similar to Champions League before its rebranding. Its earliest editions in 1955/56 till 1970/71 were named Inter-Cities Cup. Then, its growing popularity attracted UEFA to take over the organisation of and renamed as UEFA Cup which last for a while from 1972 to 1999 before being re-branded as the Europa League in 2009/10. Within the 1972 to 1999, this competition was the third-tier in the continent under UCL and UEFA Cup Winners Cup, which was eventually abolished due to the low number of attendance in the stadium and combined to UEFA Cup for bigger audience on target.
The UEFA Europa League might not be as prestigious as UEFA Champions League but it is certainly more competitive and unpredictable when it comes to the winners. There has never been such thing called ‘tradition’ and the dark horses clubs such as Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donestk, Zenit St.Petersburg, CSKA Moscow or even IFK Gothenburg and Ipswich Town have won one. The record title holder in this competition is Sevilla with six trophies. Their record shows the dominance of La Liga side in Europa League with 13 times clinching the title throughout the history.
In the past, from the first edition to 1997, the final was set in two-legged system before switching to a single match starting from 1997/98 season. The initial format of Europa League until 2003/04 season was all round knockout games in two legs at each stage till semi final. The group stage was introduced in the following season after the qualifying round. There were five teams each divided into eight groups but each side only played four times instead of eight since the adopted format was a single round robin instead of double. The top three teams would qualify to the round of 32 alongside with 8 teams finishing third in the Champions League group stage to fight over the spot at the next stage onwards to the summit. In 2009/10 season, the format was slight modified, mainly at the group stage. The teams in the preliminary round were no longer seeded in eight groups of five teams but twelve groups of four teams with a double round robin format. Such is more similar to UCL group stage with home and away fixtures. The rest of the stage, from round of 32 onwards stays the same as before.
The most recent change was in 2015 when the Europa League champions could qualify directly to the Champions League group stage in the following season. It was meant to be the bait for the high profile teams to take this tournament more seriously since the prize reward is certainly not nearly as high as the UEFA Champions League.
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The Europa League, which has attracted more than 2 million viewers on average in each season, has had a bunch for historic moments despite being formed almost twenty years after the first edition of European Cup/Champions League.
The first historic moment was the victory of Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in 1980 and 1988. The former one relied on an away goal rule to win over their fellow German side, Borussia M’Gladbach, while the latter one was famous for their dramatic comeback win against Espanyol at the second leg before clinching the title on penalties. They counted on one same figure, a South Korean forward, Cha Beum-Kun, the father of a former versatile South Korean international man, Cha Du-Ri.
The next memorable moment was the double success of IFK Gothenburg in 1982 and 1987. They are the first and only Scandinavian side ever to win European titles. The first one was guided by none but the famous Sven Goran Erikson. Another moment was a mouth watering one. It was all about Diego Maradona in 1988/89 season. Just like what he did with Argentina in World Cup 1986, he almost single-handedly led Napoli to win their first and only continental trophy so far by dismantling VfB Stuttgart with Jurgen Klinsmann in it. The 1989 final is one of the best UEFA Cup/Europa League finals in history. It also marked the beginning of Italian clubs domination in 1990s with four all Italian finals in a decade.
Then, the new millennium saw the victory of the non favourites. Galatasaray’s success in 2000, followed by CSKA Moscow’s in 2004, Zenit St.Petersburg’s in 2008 and Shakhtar Donestk’s in 2009. Next, the 2010s onwards is the decade of Spanish side with seven wins from 2010 to 2021. Last but not least, the iconic rare moment was the London derby in the 2019 final between Chelsea and Arsenal. It was the first one in Europa League history.
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