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Why everybody was wrong about the Europa Conference League

Tammy Abraham
(Image credit: Getty)

Just try telling them it doesn’t mean anything. That went for the Leicester fans in Rome who’ve watched their side go through the wringer for 15 years – but it definitely went for the Roma fans who packed out the Stadio Olimpico for a very special night in Europe.

Fifteen days out from this Europa Conference League semi-final second leg, 100,000 Giallorossi fans were queuing to buy tickets online, in the hope of seeing their side reach a first European final since 1991. Just over 60,000 got there in the end, and boy did they made it count – the home crowd boomed out a cacophony of noise from the hour leading up to kick-off, before helping their team ride the crest of a red wave inside the first 10 minutes to inspire Tammy Abraham’s opening goal. 

Oh, this meant something alright. Roma’s febrile fans had gathered in their masses before kick-off, blockaded roads and sent smoke spiralling. The Olimpico has sold out frequently this season thanks to a range of successful initiatives, but matchdays aren’t usually like this. It was particularly loud, it was proud – and for Leicester, it was all too much to handle. 

Not bad, really, for a tournament that no one was supposed to care about.  

Given that UEFA have proved themselves about as trustworthy as a wet fart over the years, football fans were hardly out of turn in eye-rolling their latest hare-brained idea in May last year – forming a new reject tournament for teams only a mother could love, who in turn wouldn’t strain many sinews for the prestige of a competition named more like a five-a-side league for Brussels bureaucrats. 

Looking back at the 32 teams that kicked off this season’s inaugural edition of the Europa Conference League explains why: Tottenham, Roma and Feyenoord were the standout names of a motley list featuring teams from Germany to Gibraltar, with traditional firepower at a premium. Whether you like it or not, fans generally want to play only when the stars come out. 

In the end, Spurs – they of two trophies in the last three decades – proved so apathetic to the prospect of winning something that they didn’t even bother finishing their group stage campaign; after a COVID outbreak in December, they forfeited their final game against Rennes, accepting a 3-0 defeat in lieu of trying to make the knockout round play-offs. Losing 2-1 at Slovenian minnows Mura in their previous match might have been the final nail. 

Generally speaking, the group stage was drab – as it is in the majority of UEFA competitions, with jeopardy at a relative low. Shocks happen, but they rarely mean much: Bodo/Glimt battered Roma 6-1 at home, then drew away and finished second. The minnows were chewed up and spat out by bigger fish. With the competition offering little in its first 10 weeks, UEFA needed something, anything, to spark its new product into life. 


(Image credit: Getty)

Leicester fans

(Image credit: Getty)

Luckily for them, though, they’d get it. Because as it turns out, the Europa Conference League has been a little bit like Married At First Sight Australia: difficult to comprehend at first, but you get there in the end. In reality, UEFA’s third competition, an idea originally hatched seven years ago, was necessary: its formation immediately hacked out a round of action from the bloated Europa League, easing the strain on those involved in that competition’s arduous early run of fixtures.

Most importantly, it gave more of the continent’s clubs a vital opportunity to make their seasons mean something. Without it, Leicester’s would have been dead by February. For the likes of fellow Europa League dropouts Marseille, Fenerbahce, PSV and PAOK, the Conference League has offered a new home for hope in dreamless domestic environments. 

From UEFA’s point of view, this season’s knockout stage could have hardly gone better: look at its semi-finalists alongside the Europa League, and it wouldn’t immediately be obvious which were which to the untrained eye. The Conference League may have been created to give more teams opportunities on the continent, but it works twofold: for those competing in the first place, and those trying to win in Tirana on May 25. Ultimately, when you’re not in the Champions League itself, how much does it matter exactly what’s at stake when there’s another prize up for grabs? 

Not much, apparently. At full-time in Rome, the flags were out in force to celebrate an event that hasn’t happened for 31 years: the Giallorossi playing in a European final. Jose Mourinho wasn’t being flippant when he declared before the semi-final triumph: “I see this as my competition now. I’m not in the Champions League or the Europa League – I’m in this and I’m in it to win it. It’s my competition.” 

After all: what else was he going to be doing on a Thursday? And he hasn't been alone.

Tammy Abraham Leicester

(Image credit: Getty)

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Joe is the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities. 

By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.