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5 interesting facts about the UEFA Europa League

2016 seems set to be a promising and interesting year for football. With last year’s surprise winners and losers in the Premier League; the UEFA Europa and Champions Leagues currently underway; and the Euro championships coming up in summer, British teams will be tested to their limits. However, how much do you actually know about the Europa League? The facts below may surprise you.

1. It wasn’t always called the Europa League

Before 2009, the Europa League was simply called the UEFA Cup. But that’s not the only thing that changed. In the same year, the UEFA Intertoto Cup was merged with the UEFA Cup to form the Europa League we all know today. Previously, the Intertoto Cup was for clubs who failed to qualify for both the Champions and the Europa Leagues. Following the merger, teams which would have previously entered the Intertoto Cup now go straight into the qualifiers for the Europa League.

The problem with the Intertoto Cup was that many football clubs saw it as disrupting preparation for the next season. English clubs’ negative attitude towards the tournament grew so strong that many clubs didn’t enter themselves to the Intertoto Cup even when they were entitled to do so. In 1995, all English teams rejected offers to take part, leading to the threat of banning all English teams from competing in any UEFA tournaments. Three clubs eventually entered weak teams, none of whom qualified.

Image of a stadium at sunset

2. Does anyone remember the Cup Winners’ Cup?

Nowadays, the Europa League is regarded as the second most prestigious European tournament, after the Champions League, but this wasn’t always the case. The second place used to be held by the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the winner of which would go on to play the top team in the Champions League for the UEFA Super Cup, as is the case with the Europa League today.

However, after entry to the Champions League was expanded in 1997, more of the best teams qualified for this tournament instead of the Cup Winners’ Cup, drastically reducing the quality of play in the latter tournament. With only a couple of high profile teams entering each year, interest dropped amongst the public and football clubs alike. In 1999, the Cup Winners’ Cup was folded into the Europa League (then called the UEFA Cup).

Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on your allegiances - the final winners of 1999, Italian team Lazio, weren’t allowed to keep the actual trophy, which was instead returned to UEFA. However, throughout the history of the Cup Winners’ Cup, no winning team ever managed to successfully defend their title the next year, so perhaps this was fair after all.

Silhouettes of football fans cheering at a match with the pitch in front of them

3. Some countries have never had a team win the Europa League

Places in the Europa League are given to clubs who finish in second place in the top national leagues across Europe. This means that the qualifying teams which face each other change unpredictably from tournament to tournament. Including the previous UEFA Cup tournament, teams from Hungary, Yugoslavia and Austria have never won, and have only come second once. French and Scottish teams have made it to runner-up a handful of times, but have also failed to take the title.

Two players challenging for the ball as they approach goal, with the stadium and teammates behind them

4. Other nations have (unsurprisingly) been very successful

Teams from the Netherlands, Germany and England have won the UEFA Europa League several times. England last won with Chelsea in the 2012-2013 tournament. Liverpool is the only other English team to win since 1983 (in 2001) but when the UEFA Cup began, English teams dominated the first two tournaments, playing on both sides in the first final in 1972, and winning again the following year against a West German team.

Italian and Spanish teams have truly dominated the UEFA Cup/Europa League, however. Teams from the two countries have 9 wins each. Spanish team Sevilla has won 4 times alone, and Italian clubs Inter Milan and Juventus have each taken the cup 3 times. Unsurprisingly, then, Sevilla’s coach Unai Emery had numerous causes for celebration, becoming not only the first coach to win the Europa League twice, but also the first coach to manage 50 games in the tournament.

Sevilla has gone from strength to strength, with a final total of 29 goals scored in the 2014-15 games, seven more than were scored the last time they won. These are not, however, the best tallys. Portuguese team FC Porto and Atletico Madrid have both scored higher, with 37 and 33 goals respectively.

Two football players challenging for the ball

5. It hasn’t always looked like a pan-European tournament

Although the first final in 1972 saw two English teams playing one another, this wasn't the most unusual season for the UEFA Europa League. In the 1979-80 season, West Germany entered five teams, including the previous year’s winners, Borussia Mönchengladbach. All five of these clubs made it through to the quarter-final stage, and both semi-final games were played entirely by West German teams. Borussia Mönchengladbach failed to defend the title, however, losing to Eintracht Frankfurt. This shows that the Germans were truly on form, as no West German team was eliminated by a non-German club. This was also the only time (thus far) when all of the semi-finalists have hailed from one nation.

On the other hand, France entered seven teams into the 1997-98 tournament. Strasbourg and Metz qualified as winner and runner-up in the French League Cup, Nantes Atlantique and FC Girondins de Bordeaux gained places as top teams in French Division 1, and Bastia, Lyon and AJ Auxerre qualified as they came high up in the 1997 UEFA Intertoto Cup. They failed to replicate the Germans’ success, however, with only Auxerre making it to the quarter-final stage, only to be beaten by Lazio.

Siloheuttes of four football players running towards goal in the sunset