My favo(u)red European soccer-football club, the Mighty Reds of Liverpool, will play a European Champions League match tomorrow—a meeting with Italy’s Fiorentina for which manager Rafa Benitez might as well send out the ball boys with his dear old mother in goal, because Liverpool have already been eliminated from the competition. The club’s strange and intermittently disastrous season will now take another odd turn, as it crashes from the limelight of the Champions League—world football’s glossiest and most lucrative competition—into the…well, let’s say “twilight” of the second-tier Europa League.
If you want to experience a sensation that suggests how having your brain removed with tiny hooked implements might feel, go read about the Europa League qualification system. (“The Armenian Premier League 2008 runner-up Ararat Yerevan did not obtain a UEFA license, so Gandzasar, which finished third, were moved up to the second qualifying round, while MIKA, which finished fourth, took the vacated first qualifying round spot….”) Suffice it to say that in terms of prestige and prominence, the difference between the CL and the EL is like the difference between a schmancy Manhattan co-op and a punk-rock group house in Queens—they are both in New York, but only technically. The Champions League traditionally features Europe’s heaviest characters and progresses to a Super Bowl-caliber final. The Europa League, in its former identity as the UEFA Cup, of late showcased a scruffy and uneven scrum of clubs from all over the place and nowhere in particular, culminating in a final won by a factory team from the former Soviet Union. (Or, indeed, Liverpool, who scooped the Cup in 2001.)
The thing is, this year’s inaugural Europa-ized Europa League is kind of shaping up to be a cool competition. Liverpool—in. Wolfsburg, champions of Germany—in. Juventus—in. Atletico Madrid—in. Marseille—in. Apoel Nicosia…never mind. But anyway, if any of these super-teams can be bothered to exert themselves in pursuit of Second Banana, the 32-team knock-out grid could provide ample entertainment.
In any case, when you’re a Liverpool fan these days, you can’t be too fussy about which silverware you aim to heist—and yes, I may not actually hail from Merseyside, but I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere.