Tortuous route nears end


More than 10 tortuous months, two disqualifications and 202 matches later, the Europa League reaches its climax on Wednesday with a meeting between two Spanish sides, both coached by Argentines, in Romania.

Finalists Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid, the 2010 winners, were both delighted to be in Europe's second-string club competition but the same could not be said for English champions United.

Manager Alex Ferguson said that taking part was a "punishment" for his side, a remark which forced UEFA president Michel Platini to leap to the defence of the Champions League's less glamorous sibling.

"The world does not revolve around England, I like England a lot, it's football is fantastic, it's supporters are wonderful but you shouldn't criticise the Europa League just because you've played in three Champions League finals," he retorted.

"The Europa League is a brilliant competition. I know Mr Ferguson would have preferred to be in the Champions League but so would many clubs who don't have that possibility."

The majority of European fans would probably place themselves somewhere in between English indifference to the competition and Platini's unbridled enthusiasm, though most would struggle to unravel its bewildering complexities.

Put simply, the Europa League is the rebranded version of the former UEFA Cup which itself started out as the Inter Cities Fairs Cup and absorbed the old European Cup Winners Cup somewhere along the line.

The Blizzard magazine suggested recently that the tournament ought to be named "The Second-Tier Distribution of Teams as Apportioned by Mathematical Coefficients Cup" to give fans a real idea of what it truly represents.

The format is baffling enough, featuring four qualifying rounds of two-leg ties, a group stage with a round-robin mini-league format, four more phases of knockout ties and a one-off final in neutral territory.

Teams can qualify by winning their domestic Cup, finishing anywhere between second and sixth in their league, getting knocked out of the Champions League or simply by being nice and winning one of three places allocated to according to UEFA's fair play rankings.

They enter the fray at any point between the first qualifying round in June and the round-of-32 the following February, depending on the ranking of their country's league in UEFA's highly complex system of coefficients.

A total of 193 teams, from 52 of UEFA's member associations, took part this season of which 33 parachuted in after elimination at various stages of the Champions League. Unlucky Liechtenstein is not represented as it does not have its own league or Cup.

The first qualifying round saw the part-timers of Faroe Islands outfit NSI, whose stadium holds 500 people and was deemed not up to UEFA standards, meet the Premier League professionals of Fulham, who qualified via the fair play route.

Other early entrants included Kazakhstan's Irtysh Pavlodar, whose stadium is closer to Mongolia and China than UEFA headquarters in Nyon. They also claimed the distinction of having also taken part in the Asian Champions League in the days before UEFA defied geography by accepting Kazakhstan as a member.

The honour of scoring the first goal of the 2011-12 UEFA Europa League fell to Igor Voronkov who struck in the 11th minute of FC Minsk's 1-1 draw at Olimpik-Suvalan PFK.

Several teams qualified only to miss out because they were not granted a UEFA licence which is only forthcoming if clubs meet complex rules regarding pitches, changing rooms, toilets and media facilities.

Greek side Olympiakos Volos were kicked out after a match-fixing scandal in their homeland and Sion followed for defying UEFA and FIFA over a transfer ban imposed after they poached a player from an Egyptian club.

The Swiss Super League club ignored the ban as they signed six new players during the 2011 transfer window, then fielded several of them in a fourth qualifying round tie against Celtic.

Having won that tie, Sion were duly expelled and defied UEFA statutes by taking their case to a civil court in the same canton as UEFA's headquarters.

At one point, Platini had to appear before a public prosecutor to explain why UEFA had not complied with a provisional ruling ordering Sion's reinstatement.

Sion eventually lost the case, saving UEFA the headache of trying to insert them into a group phase which by then was nearing completion.

Athletic Bilbao, who began their campaign in the third qualifying round in July, might not have got past the first hurdle had Turkish champions Fenerbahce not been allegedly caught up in a match-fixing scandal.

The 1977 UEFA Cup runners-up were held 0-0 at home by Trabzonspor in their first leg but the Turkish provincial side were then promoted to the Champions League after Fenerbahce were expelled from the showpiece tournament.

Athletic went straight through to the next round and never looked back.

Trabzonspor, meanwhile, reached the Champions League group stage, finished third and then found themselves back in the Europa League as one of the eight teams who joined the competition in February, alongside United and City.

From the knockout stages onwards, the competition grew in momentum and many matches rivalled or surpassed the Champions League in quality and drama which culminates in Wednesday's mouth-watering clash.

After the winners lift the trophy, there will barely been time for the excitement to die down before it all starts again on July 5, just four days after the Euro 2012 final, with the likes of Ordabasay, Pyunik and Cefn Druids.

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