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Searching for Meaning in Trophies

What gives a competition meaning? What makes football fans and managers look at some trophies with reverence and others with contempt? Is it merely harsh economic reality that makes some clubs abandon certain competitions while chasing others?

Earlier this week on Fox Football Fone-in, the text message scroll at the bottom of the screen presented viewers with this question: “Should the UEFA Cup winner get a Champions League qualifying bid?” The wording seemed oddly specific, as if winning what’s supposed to be a major European tournament isn’t enough to qualify for the group stage of the continent’s biggest event. Regardless, the question managed to garner six text responses in the first hour; four said yes, two said no, with one of the yes votes saying that putting the UEFA Cup winner in the Champions League was the only way to make that competition “meaningful.”

At this point, Juande Ramos would probably stop and ask, “When did it stop being meaningful?” His Sevilla sides went all out to win two UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007. Zenit St. Petersburg and Rangers certainly didn’t act like the UEFA Cup meant nothing when they met in the final last year in Manchester.

Few would argue, however, that the UEFA Cup lost some of its luster when the European Cup, once strictly an honor for league champions, expanded to allow multiple clubs from nations with high marks in UEFA’s computers. Suddenly, it was no longer necessary to win a league title to compete for European football’s biggest prize. This made European football’s second biggest prize feel like scraps falling off a king’s table.

American college basketball fans will recognize the parallels. When the NCAA Tournament expanded in the 1980s to include top-ranked teams from big conferences, the National Invitational Tournament went from being a popular best-of-the-rest event to a best-of-those-who-weren’t-good-enough event. Lifting the NIT trophy in Madison Square Garden, which once brought great recognition, now brings the mocking cheer of “We’re number 66!” This explains why some American soccer fans refer to the UEFA Cup as “Europe’s NIT.”

It also explains why a club like Aston Villa would give the reserves a run out in UEFA Cup matches in an attempt to exit the competition early and focus on other pursuits. For Martin O’Neill, winning the UEFA Cup is a secondary concern to winning a spot in the Champions League, and the only way he can get there is by finishing fourth or higher in the Premier League. This sort of thinking is far from uncommon in English football. Reading manager Steve Coppell is outspoken in his scorn of the FA Cup, while half the clubs in England seem annoyed by the mere presence of the Carling Cup. Last December, one Manchester United fan told me, “We need the Carling Cup like we need a hole in the head.”

Yet Man United won the Carling Cup, and Reading had a long and fruitful FA Cup run in its debut Premier League season, but were relegated the following year after players publicly stated that the FA Cup did nothing to preserve their league status. Oh, really? It’s almost enough to make you ask if a good cup run is the equivalent of good karma. After all, success on the pitch builds confidence, and that confidence can spill over into other competitions. Perhaps attempting to win every available competition is worth the potential fixture congestion and fatigue.

It doesn’t change the fact, however, that some competitions simply feel more valuable than others. League titles in Europe mean more than domestic cup titles, in part because the league is more difficult to win, but also because the prize for league success — a Champions League spot — is much bigger than the prize for cup success — a UEFA Cup spot. Oddly enough, that’s not the case in America anymore. In fact, as a supporter of a USL club, I would rather see my Carolina Railhawks win the U.S. Open Cup than a USL First Division title, because winning the U.S. Open Cup would get us a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, where USL clubs seem to be outperforming their MLS counterparts, many of whom show almost zero interest in the Open Cup. Winning the league, on the other hand, gets us a very nice trophy, but with no promotion and relegation system in America, the league title becomes an end to itself. Hey, we won. Awesome. Let’s go for it again next year.

Perhaps this is the argument for giving the UEFA Cup winner a Champions League bid. Changing the UEFA Cup’s name isn’t going to change the fact that it’s viewed as an end point with a less-than-prestigious prize. If the new Europa League were a stepping stone to the Champions League, however, then we might see Martin O’Neill decide his club should go for it. We might see more clubs take their domestic cups seriously, too, because winning those trophies would become stepping stones to the big dance. Purists would argue that not everything should exist to serve the Champions League, but at this point in European football’s history, what doesn’t?

Of course, the UEFA Champions League isn’t an end point, either. The winner goes the FIFA Club World Cup, which purports to crown a true world champion. The gaps between continental champions are so glaring, however, that it’s already a chore to make fans care about this young competition. Sir Alex Ferguson had to convince the media that, yes, Man United would actually take the Club World Cup seriously. And why shouldn’t he? Does anyone at Old Trafford really want to see LDU Quito supporters storming the streets of Ecuador and calling themselves “World Champions?”

Yes, Man United is the richest club in football, so it can afford to care about the Club World Cup. Then again, couldn’t it easily afford not to care, too? Sir Alex could simply say that nothing really matters but the Premier League and the Champions League. He doesn’t. Jose Mourinho was the same way at Chelsea, yet he was sacked by an owner who cared only about the European trophy Mourinho didn’t win, rather than the five domestic trophies that he did. Ask Arsenal supporters if they wish they had one of those trophies right now.

Indeed, there can be only one champion of Europe, and the UEFA Cup winner won’t be it. That’s why Aston Villa supporters wouldn’t dream of trading that coveted fourth-place finish in the Premier League for a UEFA Cup. Finishing fourth just feels more meaningful. The club’s treasurers would certainly agree. In the end, though, history will remember those who hoist the trophies. Finishing fourth ultimately leaves you with an empty trophy case. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt.

David J. Warner is the creator of Dave’s Football Blog, the former lead of AOL’s Soccer FanHouse and a semi-regular contributor to EPL Talk and World Soccer Daily.

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Searching for Meaning in Trophies

by David J. Warner · March 12, 2009

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