The Europa Conference League was first played during the 2021/22 season and was introduced as a third intercontinental contest for club sides from around Europe. It very much plays third fiddle to the bigger, more lucrative and more established Champions and Europa Leagues but there are hopes it will develop into a highly regarded European competition.
Roma won the first-ever edition of this competition, seeing off Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in the final. The winners of this trophy gain automatic entry into the following season’s Europa League (unless they had qualified through league finish for the Champions League). In addition, the winners earned €5m in prize money in 2021/22 and so the Conference is certainly not to be sniffed at.
Upcoming Matches: Tips & Predictions
TBD - Tips are added shortly before the start of each match. Please check back nearer the time.
Europa Conference League Format & Structure
The Europa Conference League is one of the newest competitions in world football and so there isn’t much to talk about in terms of history, stats, or changes to the format or structure. Due to the disruption to the global football calendar caused by the winter World Cup in 2022, we will use the 2021/22 Europa Conference League (ECL) as our guide and exemplar in this piece. Naturally, dates change slightly each year but in general the calendar for the inaugural competition should prove representative.
In line with its more prestigious European competitions, the Champions League (CL) and the Europa League (EL), the ECL features early qualifying rounds in July and August. Prior to the group phase, which many fans of bigger clubs would normally consider to be the start of the tournament, minnows may face eight games! That includes three rounds of two-legged qualifiers, before a two-legged play-off round.
In 2021/22, both Bodo/Glimt and Maccabi Haifa managed to progress right through from the first qualifying round into the group stages. In fact, Norwegian outfit Bodo made it all the way through to the quarter finals before being eliminated by eventual winners Roma, an incredible achievement.
As with the CL and EL, UEFA’s complex system of coefficients determines, along with how the sides fared in the various leagues and cups they qualified via, at which point a team enters. In 2021/22, for example, the first qualifying round saw 66 teams take part, including:
- 20 teams who won their domestic cup – from nations ranked 36 to 55
- 21 teams who finished third in their league – ranked 29 to 50, excluding Liechtenstein
- 25 teams who finished second in their league – associations 30 to 55, again excluding Liechtenstein
From the second qualifying round on there are two pathways, with teams dropping down from the CL or EL entered into the Champions Path. It really is all rather complex but full information about the process can be seen at the official Europa Conference League page of UEFA’s site. Fundamentally and logically, however, gradually stronger and stronger sides enter the competition, until we have the group phase, typically beginning in mid-September and then running until mid-December.
In simple terms we then have a break over Christmas before the knockout phase. Things are a little different in terms of the structure as compared to the CL and we will look at that shortly. However, in terms of dates much is the same, with the Round of 16 taking place in March, the quarters in early April, semis later that same month and into May, then the final at the end of May. Games are typically played on Thursday evenings with two kick-off times: 5.45 pm and 8 pm UK time. The final is played on a Wednesday evening, kicking off at the later time slot.
Progression Through the Tournament
As said, after the initial group phase, the ECL differs somewhat from UEFA’s premier competition, the Champions League. It will, however, be familiar to those who follow the Europa League closely. Up until this point it is remarkably similar to both of UEFA’s two more illustrious competitions, with various qualifying rounds before an eight-group round-robin stage featuring 32 teams. In the Champions League, the top two sides from each of the eight groups go into the last 16, with winners seeded and thus facing opponents who came second in their group.
However, in the UCL, as in the EL, it is only the group winners who qualify automatically for the Round of 16. Group runners-up go instead into the Preliminary Knockout Round, where they face a team who finished third in their group in the superior Europa League. These two-legged clashes take place in mid-February, the draw taking place shortly after the conclusion of the group phases in this competition and the EL. The teams who enter from the EL are unseeded, giving the ECL group runners-up the minor advantage of hosting the second legs.
From here on in, the format really should be very familiar, with two-legged last 16 games, followed by quarter finals, semis and the final, played over one leg at a neutral/pre-determined venue. As with other UEFA competitions, the away goals rule was removed in 2021, meaning that should games be level after two legs the teams will play extra time and penalties as required.
Prize for the Victors
Participation in the ECL is not as lucrative as for the CL or EL but can still add significant amounts to a club’s turnover. Making the group phase of the competition earns a club almost €3m euros, with a further €500,000 for each win at that point. The champions receive €5m, whilst further payments are made depending on the size of the TV market in the team’s country.
In addition winners receive a rather impressive trophy that stands some 57.5cm tall and weighs a whopping 11kg – around about the weight of a two year old child! It is formed by 32 hexagonal spines of brass, one for each of the teams in the group stage. Designed in London, it is a handsome trophy, but perhaps the biggest prize comes the following season.
The ECL winners gain automatic entry into the following season’s Europa League. Assuming they have not qualified for the Champions League, they go straight into the group phase of the EL. That guarantees them at least €3.6m in base prize funds (plus extra TV money), with each win at that stage worth a further €630,000.
Origins of the Europa Conference League
For a long time there were three main UEFA competitions: the European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In simple terms, these were for the league winners, runners-up (and perhaps other high-ranked teams) and the winners of a league’s main domestic cup. Over the years there has been much rebranding, renaming and tweaks to the formats but when the Cup Winners’ Cup was dispensed with in 1999, we were left with just two main competitions. We will disregard the ill-fated, unloved and short-lived Intertoto Cup.
It was, for some time, believed that having too many such competitions diluted the brand and prestige of them all and that the smaller competitions suffered in particular. However, from the mid-2010s it is thought that UEFA was changing its mind and was beginning to believe that hosting a third-tier pan-European competition had merit.
They also thought that the 48-team Europa League group stage was rather bloated; and so, for a number of reasons, including giving some lesser sides a more realistic chance of winning silverware, or at least enjoying a decent cup run, the Europa Conference League was born.
For teams from lower-ranked nations and for clubs outside the elite in Europe’s premier footballing countries, this would allow them to play more matches and generate more money. In December 2018 UEFA stated that the “Europa League 2” (a provisional name) was set to launch in 2021. Less than a year later the tournament had an official name: the UEFA Europa Conference League.
In May 2021, the competition trophy, branding and music (the same as the Europa League’s in terms of the latter) were revealed. On 15th June 2021 the draw was made for the first qualifying round and on 6th July, the competition’s first goal was scored. In September Harry Kane bagged the tournament’s first hat-trick, despite only coming off the bench in the 59th minute, whilst on 5th May, 2022 Roma became the inaugural winners of the UCL. The Italians beat Dutch side Feyenoord 1-0 in the final, the game played in the Albanian capital, Tirana.