The Europa League used to be called the UEFA Cup and is the secondary intercontinental competition for sides governed by UEFA. It does not offer the same glamour, prestige or financial reward as its big brother, the Champions league, but is still a huge competition packed with brilliant sides and world-class players.
First played in 1971 (as the UEFA Cup), Spurs won the inaugural edition of this contest. It was rebranded in 2009 as the Europa League, with more teams taking part and a group/league format introduced. Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk won the last tournament when it was held as the UEFA Cup and Atletico Madrid claimed the first Europa League in 2010. Sevilla are the most successful side in the history of the UEFA Cup/Europ league with six titles, all coming between 2006 and 2020.
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Europa League Format
As with just about all long-established competitions in football, the Europa League (EL) has evolved over the years. That evolution has included a number of name changes, most notably in 2009 when it rebranded to its current name from the UEFA Cup. At this time it changed from being a straight knockout competition to the mix of a group phase followed by knockout rounds we see now and are so familiar with thanks to the Europa League’s big brother, the Champions League (CL).
The Europa League begins in September in terms of the competition proper and this is the point at which the biggest sides on the continent, including those from England, enter the fray. Prior to that there are various qualifying and play-off rounds for clubs from nations that have a lower UEFA coefficient (the complex method based on past results by which UEFA ranks clubs and national associations). These generally take place from the start of August, with the Europa League final normally being played the following May.
Key Europa League Dates & Rounds
The exact dates of each round and how the competition is structured are subject to minor changes here and there. We shall look at bigger changes to the format when we look at the history of the competition shortly. As such, broadly speaking, you can expect the following:
- Qualifying – there are initial qualifying rounds followed by a play-off round to determine the final places in the group phase, with around 10 up for grabs. This process takes place during August.
- Group Phase – 32 teams play in eight groups of four, meeting home and away. These games are normally played between mid-September and mid-December but we have seen disruption in recent years due to global health issues and the 2022 winter World Cup in Qatar.
- Preliminary Knockout Round – the eight teams who finished second in their group play the eight teams who finished third in the Champions League group phase. Sides meet home and away, usually in February.
- Knockout Phase Proper – the eight winners from the preliminary round meet the eight group winners from the initial groups. From here it is a standard home and away knockout competition until the final. The last 16 usually takes place in March, with quarters in April and semis in May.
- Final – the final is played as a single game at a neutral venue at the end of May.
Games are usually played on a Thursday evening, with kick-offs in two slots, either 5.45 pm or 8 pm (UK time). If there are scheduling clashes or in exceptional circumstances, games may be played on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, whilst the final is played on a Wednesday evening.
The draws for each round usually take place shortly after the conclusion of the previous round, though the quarter final draw lays out each team’s route through the semis and to the final. At other stages this is not possible because restrictions are put in place to keep certain sides apart, so, for example, teams from the same nation/association will not be drawn in the same group.
Who Plays in the UEFA Europa League?
Since the introduction of the Europa Conference League in 2021 (which also heralded some structural changes to this competition, of which more below), the Europa League has been one of three UEFA club competitions. In terms of prestige and financial reward it sits second to the Champions League and ahead of the Conference League. In simple terms this means that the sides that play in it are not generally as good or successful as those in the former, but are better than teams in the latter.
In more complex terms, 58 teams compete in the EL, with a number of those dropping into it at different points from the Champions League. As well as the eight from the group stage of the CL, teams also enter earlier in the competition, with more than 30 sides coming into the EL this way. Teams that automatically enter the Europa League do so by virtue of either winning a domestic cup or, more typically, via their league placing the season before.
Places in the EL are awarded to a nation according to that association’s ranking in terms of the UEFA coefficient. For example, the top five associations, which are usually (in current order of ranking) England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, receive two EL places each. Normally associations ranked six to 15 get a place each but things are different at present due to Russia being banned (they would be ranked eighth as of 2022/23). The lower-ranked nations see their top sides go into the earliest stages of the CL but then often drop into this competition at some stage, usually prior to the group phase of the CL.
In addition the winners of the preceding season’s Europa Conference League qualify for the Europa League (assuming they have not already qualified for the CL). In turn, any side that goes on to win the EL will play in the following season’s CL, entering at the group phase.
Europa League History
The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was introduced in 1955 alongside the European Cup (now the Champions League). Known by many simply as the Fairs Cup, it was won by Leeds United in 1968 and 1971. They were the first English side to win it, and the only one to do so twice, but Newcastle United and Arsenal also managed to lift the Fairs Cup, whilst Leeds and Birmingham also lost in finals.
In 1971 the Fairs Cup was abolished and the UEFA Cup took its place. However, whilst the UEFA Cup and Europa League are considered to be one and the same as far as a side’s European record is concerned, because the Fairs Cup was not a UEFA competition, it does not really stand alongside them.
As such the first EL, in modern parlance, came in 1971/72 when we saw an all-English final between Spurs and Wolves. Back then, the final was played over two legs, Spurs winning 2-1 away and drawing 1-1 at White Hart Lane to land the trophy. The final stayed as a two-legged affair for a long time, until 1997/98 in fact.
Until 1999 it was considered to be the third most important UEFA competition, with the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup ranked above it. That was abolished in 1999 having been rebranded in 1994, and essentially merged with the UEFA Cup, winners of domestic cup competitions now qualifying for this contest.
The UEFA Cup itself was rebranded in 2009/10, merging with the short-lived and much-maligned Intertoto Cup. The EL is now run along very similar lines to the CL and, like that more illustrious competition, has changed from being a pure knockout competition to one that uses both a league (group) format and then a knockout phase.
The precise nature of the tournament has undergone many minor changes over the years but most of these have centred on the earlier rounds and qualification or have been small tweaks such as the brief use of golden goals in extra time. The first really big change was the aforementioned move to a single-game final, to be held at a neutral venue. Another major change saw a 40-team group phase used for a time (2004/05 to 2008/09 inclusive).
Here there were eight groups of five teams and rather than playing each other home and away twice, it was a single round-robin format with teams playing four, rather than eight games. Each team would play twice at home and twice away with the top three from the five qualifying. These 24 teams were joined by eight “best losers” from the CL to create a last 32 that then proceeded as a knockout, two-legged contest.
The rebrand to the Europa League brought more major changes to the format of the competition and meant that the 2009/10 season saw 48 teams through to the group phase. 12 teams of four then played a double round-robin, home and away, with the top two progressing, those 24 again being joined by eight clubs from the CL. That gave us 32 teams from where the tournament progressed as a straight knockout, games played over two legs, home and away, before a single-game final, normally 10 days before the final of the CL.
Since this point there have been a couple more tweaks to the distribution, this being UEFA’s term for which clubs enter at what stage and how the tournament progresses. The biggest has only recently been introduced and has seen the Champions League teams drop into the competition to play the EL group phase runners-up, with the latter seeded and the former unseeded.
Another big change to have occurred recently (June 2021) was the abolition of the away goals rule. This was adopted in all UEFA competitions and means that rather than away goals being used as a tiebreaker, sides head to extra time and penalties if required.
Europa League Facts & Stats
Note that the following information is correct as of the start of the 2022/23 season and considers the Europa League in its previous guise of the UEFA Cup (but not the Fairs Cup).
- Record Winners – Sevilla have won this competition the most times and have six titles to their name. All of these were won between 2006 and 2020, including a hat-trick between 2014 and 2016. They have never lost in the final.
- Spain Dominate – Teams from Spain have won the Europa League a record 13 times, ahead of England and Italy (both nine).
- Goals Galore – In 2001, Liverpool beat Alaves 5-4 after a golden goal extra time period. This is the most goals scored in a final.
- Close But No Cigar – Benfica and Marseille have both made the final three times but lost all three.
- Most Successful Player – The late Jose Antonio Reyes won this competition five times, a record, including three times with Sevilla and twice with Atletico Madrid.
- Record Manager – Unai Emery is the master at guiding teams to Europa League victory, winning the title four times – three with Sevilla and once with Villarreal.
- Most Teams – Germany has had the most different teams play in the competition with 18 – England have had 17.
- Four Trebles – Porto, Galatasaray, IFK Gothenburg and CSKA Moscow have completed the treble of UEFA Cup/Europa League, plus their domestic league and cup double.
- Record 110,000 Attendance to See Ipswich – The biggest crowd in the history of the competition assembled at the Bernabeu to see Real Madrid play Ipswich in 1973!
- Top Scorers – Henrik Larsson has the most goals in the competition overall with 40 (56 games). Radamel Falcao notched the most in a single season (17), whilst Aritz Aduriz has the record for the most goals in a single Europa League game, bagging five against Genk in 2016 … three were penalty kicks!