Maybe it’s because I had a knee replacement operation a few weeks ago and I’ve just got back from the dentist but I’m seeing things darkly at the moment. Money of course is the root of all evil, and that’s why the two competitions I’m thinking of – The Europa League and the Jupiler Pro League (playoffs) – look they have been designed by committees of people who have little interest of what actually happens on the field of play.
Let’s take the Europa League first. This is undoubtedly the worst European competition ever devised by man (Ed: What about the Intertoto?). I really do doubt that women were involved. No less than 193 teams ‘qualified ‘for this year’s competition, including no less than 32 clubs who had failed in the Champions League. Furthermore, the idea that eight teams who came third in their Champions’ League group can go straight into the Europa League knock-out competition is beyond me. There will have been 308 games played before the Europa League Champions will be crowned – it means nothing. The competition is the bastard child of the UEFA Cup and the Intertoto Cup. The only time fans get really excited are when it reaches the last 16. In this season’s competition, the earlier 12 Group B matches – that included Atletico Madrid – were all watched by crowds of fewer than 20,000.
Racing Genk, the only Belgian club left in Europe this season, were knocked out by Stuttgart in the Europa League in mid-week. No one seemed too concerned and my feeling is that Genk fans would be happier if their team knocked Anderlecht out of the Belgian Cup next weekend. The Europa League competition is ludicrous and it has to go.
Let’s move on to the universally disliked Jupiler Pro League playoffs – see here and here for a rundown of how it all ‘works (written two years ago). The system was introduced to keep the excitement going for longer in the season and to maximise gate receipts for the big clubs. This season the identity of the six clubs qualifying for the main playoffs (PO1) were clear about four weekends before the end of the classic season. This has meant that most clubs have been soft-peddling (or stopping altogether) and waiting for the playoffs to begin – when the points gained in the Classic system will be divided by two. One exception is Anderlecht’s John Van den Brom, in his first season of playoffs, who has played every match to win as if the playoffs didn’t exist. Regardless, the Jupiler Pro League playoff system is ludicrous and it has to go.
The Jupiler Pro League should return to a classic league with the 1st and 2nd-placed clubs going into the Champions League (the runners-up at the qualifying stage) with 3rd and 4th – and maybe the Cup winners – going into a UEFA Cup. Yes, bring back the UEFA Cup and make it a straight knock-out competition from the outset. And do the same for the Champions League – straight knock-out from the beginning. The big clubs would not get so much money from European competitions but as most of the cash goes directly to over-paid players, that would not be all bad. Over time, the better players might stop migrating to the three or four ‘money’ leagues and that would be no bad thing either.
I was going to end by talking about action on the pitch but there have been no standout performances in the past seven days in Belgium or involving Belgian players anywhere (Romelu Lukaku’s brace excluded). Competitions like the Europa League and the Jupiler Pro League playoffs are killing the game. It’s being eaten by greed. It’s time to fix the problem.