Paris (AFP) – To its detractors it is a third-rate tournament, far from the glamorous elite level of European football, but the inaugural Europa Conference League which kicks off this week has plenty going for it.
Tottenham Hotspur and Jose Mourinho’s Roma are the star attractions in what is the brand new third tier of continental competition.
That maybe doesn’t make it sound great, but beyond them this is an opportunity for clubs from some of the continent’s smaller countries to play more matches, earn more money and get more exposure.
It is, at heart, a fine idea, even if it may not draw in neutral viewers in their millions, but then again why should it have to?
There is a mixture of famous old names and obscure smaller clubs like Lincoln Red Imps from Gibraltar, who once defeated Celtic in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier.
The creation of the Conference League comes with the second-tier Europa League having been streamlined, slimmed from a bloated 48 teams in the group stage to 32, like in the Champions League.
There are also 32 teams in the Conference League, which offers just a single berth to each of Europe’s big five leagues, although there is no Spanish side because would-be representative Villarreal won the Europa League and thereby qualified for the Champions League.
That leaves Spurs, Roma, Union Berlin from Germany and Rennes from France.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, has three competing clubs, including former European Cup winners Feyenoord, and the goal is to reach the final on May 25 next year at the compact National Arena in Albania’s capital Tirana.
– The financial rewards –
The financial rewards on offer pale in comparison to the Champions League, with a paltry 235 million-euro ($278m, £201m) prize pot. In the Champions League the prize pot is two billion euros.
If you enter the Champions League in the group phase you are guaranteed a minimum of around 17 million euros, plus prize money per point gained and money from your television market, as well as income from gate receipts.
That figure drops drastically for the Europa League and by the time you get to the Conference League the guaranteed income is only around three million euros.
That is still a lot to some of the clubs taking part and it does increase considerably as the competition goes on — Tottenham, as the top-ranked participating team, could stand to pocket around 20 million euros by going all the way.
That is still admittedly not a huge sum for one of the top 10 richest clubs in the world with income last year of close to 400 million pounds, but maybe Nuno Espirito Santo’s team should focus on the possibility of lifting a rare piece of silverware.
After all, while a top-four finish in the Premier League must be their priority, Spurs have won nothing but two League Cups in the last 30 years.
Mourinho, who took charge of a club game for the 1000th time last weekend, has won all there is to win — including two Champions Leagues, the UEFA Cup and the Europa League — so is he tempted by the chance to get his hands on this new trophy, or does he not care?
“I don’t want to lie to you guys, and tell you this competition doesn’t interest me. It does interest me. I would like to win it,” he said this week.
Roma begin their campaign at home to Bulgaria’s CSKA Sofia, while Spurs will be in France to play Rennes.