Vol. 5 Num 694 Sat. May 13, 2006  

This Cup needs a refill

Useless Cup? That's what many think of the UEFA Cup, particularly the bigger nations in Europe. It's hard to come to any other conclusion when you see managers fielding teams packed with reserves, kids and scrubs (last season Parma seemed to actively try to get knocked out and actually appeared annoyed to advance all the way to the semifinals), as they rest starters to focus on their domestic leagues.

There is no question that the UEFA Cup has fallen victim to the Champions League. You could argue that in the past it was even tougher to win the UEFA Cup than it was to conquer the European Cup, if only because there were more good teams in it. It used to feature teams that finished between second and fourth place in most nations and was a top-notch competition. Now those teams play in Champions League, which means UEFA Cup sides are drawn from further down the food chain.

It's not surprising, then, that the only teams that get excited for it are those who have never won European silverware and for whom their domestic leagues offer little chance for glory (or even a Champions League spot).

That said, it was great to see Sevilla and Middlesbrough in Eindhoven, Netherlands, battle in the final on Wednesday night. Both clubs have passionate and long-suffering fans, both took the competition seriously and both gave the match a true sense of occasion. Sevilla dominated and won convincingly, 4-0, but it was good to see that both teams honoured the competition.

Yet the problem remains: UEFA has already fiddled with the format of the competition (introducing the rather bizarre group stage), albeit without success. Perhaps the solution is to drop the pretences and admit that it is what it is: a second-tier competition for second-tier teams. And there is no shame in that.

Give the winner an automatic spot in Champions League the following season. Don't allow teams to drop into the UEFA Cup from Champions League (which always smacks of a letdown anyway). And celebrate the fact that the sport is not just about the big boys, the Barcelonas and the Manchester Uniteds, but also about excellent second-tier teams that compete at the level that their budget and fan base allows.

Be proud of what you are, UEFA Cup, and reclaim some of that dignity. Most of us would rather see a passionate Sevilla or Middlesbrough than a disinterested AC Milan or Real Madrid anyway.