The Emirates, home of Arsenal FC in London, is an expensive place to get into.

This season, Arsenal are toiling away in a competition some Americans might not know a lot about. So I thought I would take a shot at answering the question, What is the Europa League?

The Europa League Trophy, here on display at Manchester United.

~ Updated February 23, 2018 to reflect Arsenal’s draw ~

Quickly, and as a bit of background, the world of soccer is divided into regions, and within each region there are three main competitions: countries qualifying for the World Cup every four years, countries having a regional (usually continental) competition every four years in a non-World-Cup year, and clubs battling for an annual championship.

In Europe, aka UEFA in soccer world, the last of these is called the UEFA Champions League. I wrote a whole post about the Champions League, but the top four teams in each Premier League season qualify for the next seasons’s Champions League. (You’ll hear this in relation to phrases like “Making the top four” or “Getting into the European place.”)

The next one to three teams, depending on obscure factors, qualify for the second-tier club championship of Europe — sort of the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAA. That is the Europa League.

The Europa League started in 1971 as the Europa Cup, and in 2009 it merged with two other minor club competitions and then was rebranded as the Europa League.

How do Teams Qualify for the Europa League?

The Emirates, home of Arsenal FC in London, hosts Europa League games this season.

It’s a very complicated process, based on the ranking of national associations — like Germany is ranked way higher than Belgium — meaning that countries have different allocations. Also, each country can sort of decide how to allocate its Europa spots. In England there are three slots:

  • The Winner of the FA Cup
  • The 5th-Place Team in the Premier League
  • The Winner of the League Cup

Seems simple enough, right? Well, hang on: If the FA Cup winner was in the top four or five, they go to the Champions League or Europa League, and the highest-ranked team in the League that didn’t already get into a European competition goes into the Europa League. This is how team #6 could get in. It’s the same if the League Cup winners already made Europe.

The bottom line is, a maximum of three English teams will go to the Europa League.

Also, as teams get knocked out of the Champions League, many of them drop into the Europa League.

English Teams in This Year’s Europa League

At the end of the 2016-17 Premier League Season, this is what the upper part of the table looked like:

Via Wikipedia

The top four went to the Champions League, and Arsenal got into Europa by winning the FA Cup. But, since Arsenal also finished fifth, that spot went to Manchester United. But hang on — they got into the Champions League, despite finishing sixth? That is because they won the Europa League that year, and whoever wins the Europa League gets into the next year’s Champions League; in fact, Manchester United last year wrote off winning the Premier League or even making the top four, and instead went all-in on the Europa League for this reason. Arsenal are doing the same thing this year.

So, with Arsenal in by winning the cup, and Man U already in Europe, seventh-place Everton got into the Europa League.

Europa League Structure

The Parc Olympique Lyonnais, site of the 2018 Europa League Final.

The Europa League has three qualifying rounds, held in June and July, followed by a playoff round in August. All of these are two legs, one at each club, with total goals advancing. After the playoff round comes a Group Stage with 12 groups of four clubs each. They all play round-robin games, three home and three away, and the top two go on to the Knockout Phase. At each of these points, by the way, teams are falling in from the Champions League as well.

The Knockout Phase, which is also played over two legs, has 32 teams: 24 who got out of the 12 groups, joined by the eight third-place finishers from the Champions League group stage.

Everton was knocked out in the Group Stage this year. Arsenal won their group and then got by Ostersunds, a Swedish club, in the Round of 32. On March 8 and 15 they will play in the Round of 16 against AC Milan — first in Italy and then in London.

After that it’s:

  • Quarterfinals: April 5 and 12
  • Semifinals: April 26 and May 3
  • Final: May 16 at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, France.

Who Cares About the Europa League?

Fulham beat Juventus here at Craven Cottage in the 2010 Europa League quarterfinals.

Much like the NIT, only small-time teams who never win anything really care about the Europa League. For them, it’s a chance to play in any kind of European competition, which carries the chance of lasting long enough to run into some big European club that had an off year the year before. In the 2009-2010 competition, for example, tiny Fulham of London made it all the way to the final, beating mighty Juventus of Italy along the way before finishing runners-up to Atletico Madrid.

In this year’s competition, Arsenal had a home game in the group stages against FC Koln of Germany. Arsenal was kind of embarrassed to be in it, and so a lot of their fans sold their tickets — to Koln fans, it turned out. There were so many Germans there, and so many more outside, that kickoff was delayed by an hour while fans clashed with police. Arsenal fans inside the stadium were Tweeting out messages about feeling intimidated and as if they were being “invaded.”

So the Europa League can occasionally deliver some drama, but for big English clubs — unless winning it is their only path to the Champions League, like Man U last year and Arsenal this year — it’s something of a distraction to the more important business of either staying in the Premier League or getting into the top four. Ultimately the goal is to be in the “real” European championship the next season.

Learn more about English soccer.

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