The UEFA Europa League is the second level European club competition, with the Champions League being the top. Clubs qualify via criteria such as league position or domestic cup victories the previous season.
Each member nation in UEFA is allocated a number of places in the Europa League based on their club coefficient, which is calculated from the past performance of sides from that country in recent seasons.
The tournament was known as the UEFA Cup from its first season in 1971/72 up until 2008/09. From 2009/10 this was rebranded as the Europa League. The first 26 finals were over two legs, home and away for each side, before reverting to a single match from 1997/98.
Currently there is a series of qualifying rounds played at the very start of the season before a group stage as the tournament proper begins. During the group stage, four teams play each other home and away with the top two teams progressing to the knockout phases. These are two legged matches from the round of 32 to the semi-finals, with the final a one-off game at a neutral venue.
Sevilla have lifted the trophy a record six times and have never lost a Europa League Final. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester United and Ipswich Town have all lifted the cup whilst Arsenal, Celtic, Rangers, Wolves, Fulham, Middlesbrough and Dundee United have all made it to the final.
Europa League Winners By Year
|2021–22||Eintracht Frankfurt||1–1 / 5–4 (pens)||Rangers|
|2020–21||Villarreal||1–1 / 11–10 (pens)||Manchester United|
|2013–14||Sevilla||0–0 / 4–2 (pens)||Benfica|
|2011–12||Atlético Madrid||3–0||Athletic Bilbao|
|2008–09||Shakhtar Donetsk||2–1||Werder Bremen|
|2007–08||Zenit Saint Petersburg||2–0||Rangers|
|2006–07||Sevilla||2–2 / 3–1 (pens)||Espanyol|
|2004–05||CSKA Moscow||3–1||Sporting CP|
|1999–20||Galatasaray||0–0 / 4–1 (pens)||Arsenal|
The Europa League proper sees 32 teams placed in the group stages (eight groups of four) and it is at this point that the competition properly begins. Not all teams enter Europe’s second-best club competition at this stage though. Some do, but others have to play one or two knockout matches beforehand.
The initial qualifying round, somewhat confusingly called the third qualifying round, is split into two sections. In one part you have the 10 teams eliminated from the Champions Path of the second round of Champions League qualification. In the other you have the three teams eliminated from the League Path of the same qualifying round as the three domestic cup winners from associations ranked 14 to 16.
These teams are combined to creates eight two-legged knockout fixtures with the winners progressing to what is known as the play-off round. The eight winners from the third qualifying round are then joined by 12 new teams. Half are domestic cup winners from associations eight to 13 and the other six teams are those eliminated from the third round of Champions League qualification.
The play-off round features 20 teams in total, so 10 knockout ties, so this is how 10 of the 32 teams book their place in the Europa League group stages. As with all Europa League knockout rounds, the play-offs are played over two legs with each team playing once at their home ground and there is no away goal rule enforced.
Rather than winning a play-off tie, there are two other ways of making it to the group stages for the other 22 sides. A total of 10 teams qualify by losing in the Champions League third qualification round (League Path) or play-off round (League Path and Champions Path). The other 12 places are reserved for teams that have earned direct group stage entry through their domestic league or cup performance during the previous season. This includes domestic cup winners from associations ranked one to six, the fourth-placed team from association five, the fifth-placed teams from associations one to four and, from the 2022/23 campaign onwards, the Europa Conference League winners from the previous season.
Associations & Domestic Cup Winners
So far we have mentioned ‘domestic cup winners’ and also association rankings. These two terms tend to raise some questions though, such as what happens when the domestic cup winner ends up qualifying for the Champions League (and thus does not need or want a Europa League place). In this event, it is possible that the place will go to the cup runner-up but more likely it is awarded based on league performance. By this we mean the spot will go to the highest finishing side that had not already qualified for the Europa League (or better).
As for association rankings, this relates to the UEFA country coefficients. Over a five-year period, UEFA tracks the performance of each nation and awards them with the appropriate score. Note that this has nothing to do with national teams, only the clubs that play within the country. For the 2021/22 Europa League, the coefficients looked at performances from 2015/16 to 2019/20 inclusive. The below table shows the rankings as well as the number of Europa League qualification places awarded to each team. Note that there are only 21 allocated slots because some are taken by Champions League drop outs.
Europa League 2021/22 Coefficients
With the 32 group stage teams now confirmed, the Europa League can properly get underway. Each team faces home and away fixtures against the other three teams in their group, meaning they place six matches in total. Should two (or more) teams end up level on points, which does often happen when only six games are played, UEFA uses head-to-head points as the primary tie-breaker. Failing that, head-to-head goal difference and head-to-head goals scored will then be looked at. There often ends up being a real fight for every goal, let alone every point, as there is a significantly different outcome for each position on the table:
- Group Winners – Advance to the round of 16
- Group Runners-up – Advance to the knockout play-off round
- Third Place – Eliminated but transfer to the Europa Conference League
- Last Place – Eliminated and face no other European matches this season
As outlined above, the eight group runners-up join the eight teams that were eliminated from the Champions League (by finishing third in their group) for a two-legged knockout tie. This creates a real incentive to win the group, rather than just finish second, as not only do clubs face an additional round, but it can often be against rather intimidating opposition. The eight victors from the two-legged play-off then join the eight group winners in the round of 16.
It is here where the competition really starts to hot up as all teams left standing are three victories away from the final. The Europa League simply employs a straightforward elimination structure at this point with the round of 16 leading the quarter-finals, semi-finals then followed by the final. With the exception of the final, which is played at a neutral venue, all ties feature two legs with away goals not included. For the final itself there must be a winner on the night so extra time and, if needed, a penalty shootout will be called upon to separate two teams.
One of the rewards for winning, in addition to a sizeable sum of money, is a guaranteed place in the following season’s Champions League group stages. This has not always been the case but the rule was introduced starting in the 2014/15 season. Additionally, the Europa League winner will automatically take part in the one-off UEFA Super Cup match where they take on the winners of the Champions League. So, for any team in the Europa League final, they have the chance to win two different trophies by winning just two matches.
The Europa League faced a major restructure starting from the 2021/22 season due to the creation of the Europa Conference League. Prior to this, many teams that now take part in Europe’s least prestigious major tournament instead attempted to qualify for the Europa League. Between the 2018/19 and 2020/21 seasons, there were five qualification rounds (preliminary, first, second, third and play-off) meaning so many teams faced a mighty battle just to reach the group stages. The system used prior to 2018 was largely the same although there was no preliminary round and instead just an increase of teams (104) involved in the first qualifying round.
These earlier Europa League formats, with their numerous and heavily attended qualification rounds would see 150+ sides feature in the competition at one stage or another. In these years the group stages featured 12 groups of four, so 48 places, but even so you would have 100 teams that suffered the pain of pre-group stage elimination. The current format is much more compact with far fewer early-season fixtures that need to be played.
Although the newly created Europa Conference League has its critics, it has significantly improved the scheduling for the Europa League. In what is surely a welcome change for most teams, the first round of qualification fixtures are played much later in the summer, as there are far fewer of them. Following the restructure in 2021/22, third-round qualifiers began on 5th August. Two years prior to this and the very first matches of the 2019/20 Europa League were played on 27th June!
Another significant difference between then and now is that group winners faced the same number of matches as the runners up. The top two finishers, so 24 teams in total, simply joined the eight Champions League dropouts for the start of the round of 32 knockouts. There was still an incentive to top the group table as it meant teams were more likely to receive an easier draw but the benefit was not as great as it is now.
Finally, the Europa League no longer issues qualification places based on Fair Play rankings. This is how second-division Irish side UCD Dublin (among many others) managed to snag a spot as Ireland had finished third on the UEFA Fair Play table. Under the old rules, one team from the top three ranked Fair Play nations would be able to nominate a team to play in the Europa League. In this instance, two Irish teams had a superior disciplinary record but both had already qualified for a UEFA competition.
The format of the Europa League has seen several tweaks despite not existing for very long under its current branding. The Europa League name itself only appeared in 2009, replacing the now non-existent UEFA Cup. It is simply a continuation of the former competition though so any club that won the UEFA Cup is in the Europa League history books. As well as the rebranding, UEFA took the opportunity to change the format of the competition, merging it with the now abolished Intertoto Cup which not very many sides took seriously as it disrupted pre-season preparations.
Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
Prior to the UEFA Cup what existed was the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. It is largely recognised as the predecessor to the UEFA Cup but not in an official capacity. As such, any Fairs Cup records are not considered to be UEFA Cup/Europa League records. It is still regarded as a major honour by FIFA but it is a less prestigious piece of silverware than the Europa League currently is. The unusually formatted Fairs Cup, which typically took two seasons from start to finish, ran between 1955 before being abolished in 1971. Starting off small, it initially featured just 12 teams but included 64 during its final appearance.
Cup Winners’ Cup
We won’t go into much detail about what used to be Europe’s second most prestigious competition (ahead of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) but it is worth mentioning as it effectively merged with the UEFA Cup in 1999. Although it started off with much interest when first launched in 1960, by the 1990s the Champions League began to make this competition considerably second-rate. Seeing no real place for it when the Champions League continued its expansion, UEFA took the decision to allow the UEFA Cup to absorb this dying competition while it was still standing. More can be found on the Cup Winners’ Cup here.
Player of the Season
There is only one official award for players participating in the Europa League. It is not something that will likely prove to be a career highlight but it is still some recognition for a series of fine performances on the continent.
When making the group stage draw for the Europa League, usually in early October, a little time will be set aside to announce the ‘Europa League Player of the Season’. It is something of a belated award, as it relates to a competition that finished months prior, but there is no real opportunity to do it sooner.
There is a nominated jury that determines the winner of the award, partly composed of the coaches that took part in the group stage of the competition. They are joined by a similar number of football journalists who are members of European Sports Media (ESM). Both the coaches and journalists are asked to select a shortlist of three players by giving their top pick five points, their second preference three points and their final selection one point. Journalists can issue points to whoever they like but coaches cannot pick players of the team they manage(d). The points are then added up to create a three-player shortlist, which is made public before the ceremony.
Gerard Moreno scooped the award in 2021 with Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku doing so the year before him. Typically, the award will go to a player who lifts the trophy but this does not have to be the case. The award is a relatively new addition to the Europa League, first rolled out in the 2016/17 season. The previous three winners prior to Lukaku included Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico) and Paul Pogba (Manchester United).
You may also read about awards such as the Europa League Golden Boot (top scorer) or Golden Glove (most clean sheets) mentioned from various internet sources. Neither of these are officially acknowledged though, like they are in other competitions, so there is no prize on offer for registering the most goals or clean sheets.
Tournament History & Records
When talking about the history of the Europa League it would almost be criminal not to mention just how much success Spanish outfit Sevilla have enjoyed. When claiming their sixth Europa League (or equivalent) title in 2020, this made them twice as successful as the next best team in the all-time charts. What is perhaps even more impressive about their European record however is that they won this tournament on three successive occasions (2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16) all under the same boss, Unai Emery.
Sevilla’s success means that Spain have comfortably produced the most Europa League winners over the years. Villarreal’s success in 2021 (also under Unai Emery) put Spain’s total up to 13, four more than both England and Italy had managed. What is interesting too is how formidable Spanish sides are in finals. Of their 13 victories, these had come in just 18 final appearances.
Talking a little more about Villarreal’s 2020/21 final victory, although the match itself was largely forgettable, the same could not be said about the penalty shootout. With 22 penalties taken in total, it comfortably set the record as the longest shootout seen in the final of any UEFA club competition. With all outfield players successful converting from 12 yards, many with incredible accuracy, it was the turn for the goalkeepers to step up. It was here where the shootout finally came to an end as David De Gea saw his unconvincing effort parried away by his opposite number.
While this competition has produced plenty of joy, particular for Spanish teams, other sides have suffered far more heartbreak. Both Marseille and Benfica are joint top when it comes to being beaten finalists (3) and neither have enjoyed a successful final yet. Marseille’s misfortune means that a French side is yet to win this competition despite having two other representatives reach the final (Bastia and Bordeaux).
Supporting the idea of a French Europa League curse is that during the 1997/98 season, France managed to have seven clubs in the competition (something that would not be permitted under current rules). This unlikely scenario happened as several teams from across the Channel had won their Intertoto Cup groups. Despite having so many decent teams in the mix, only Auxerre survived until the quarter-final stage and even they lost during this round.
As for the club with the most consecutive Europa League appearances (including qualification), full marks if you can correctly guess this. With 20 consecutive years in the competition (or equivalent), no team has put together a better streak than Belgian outfit Club Brugge (1996/97 to 2015/16). With fewer teams taking part in the competition than before due to the creation of the Europa Conference League, this run will take some beating but Sparta Prague are closing in on the record.
Despite only winning the competition twice, and not since 1984, Tottenham feature several times in the Europa League/UEFA Cup history books. In 1972, they took part in the first same-country final as they took on Wolverhampton Wanderers. They are also just one of eight teams to win this tournament having gone the entire duration undefeated, something they managed in ’72. The north London club also has the record for highest attendance ever recorded, with 80,465 cramming into Wembley to spectate a 2-2 draw with KAA Gent. This shattered the previous record set a year earlier by more than five thousand, this being when Manchester United hosted rivals Liverpool in a round of 16 clash.
Trophy & Anthem
The Europa League winners still lift the same trophy that Italian company Bertoni produced for the 1972 UEFA Cup final. Weighing in at 15kg, it is a silver trophy standing on top of a yellow marble plinth. Before being renamed to the Europa League, every winner was able to keep the trophy for a year, after which they would return it and exchange the original for a fourth-fifths scale replica. Only when a club won five titles or three-in-a-row could they retain the original trophy permanently, but prior to 2009, nobody had managed this.
Under current rules though, UEFA retains permanent possession of the trophy with winning clubs instead receiving a full-scale replica to take home with them. Clubs that win the tournament on three consecutive occasions, or five in total, gain a multiple-winner badge. As of 2022, the only side with the right to wear this badge is Sevilla.
As for the anthem, unlike the Champions League which has used the same iconic sound since 1992, the Europa League does not have such a strong association with any music. Following the rebranding in 2009, the tournament launched a new piece composed by Yohann Zveig and recorded by the Paris Opera. This ended up being replaced for the 2015/16 season by a Michael Kadelbach-composed anthem and another change occurred three years later with MassiveMusic responsible for the new sound.