GENEVA – Tottenham and Roma are starting on the road to Tirana next season.
The two clubs that recently fired and hired Jose Mourinho are the highest-ranked entries in the list being finalized this week for the inaugural Europa Conference League — the third-tier UEFA competition that kicks off in July.
The first winner will be crowned next May in a final at the 22,500-seat new national stadium in Albania.
It is not a glamorous or lucrative option for clubs that reached Champions League semifinals in the past three years. Tottenham went to the 2019 final.
“Yes, it’s not the competition we want to be in next year,” Tottenham’s interim coach Ryan Mason said Sunday. “But it’s a European competition, and we will respect it.”
Qualification was celebrated more enthusiastically Saturday by Union Berlin, which will make its European debut in August.
The new competition was not created to prioritize seventh-place teams from Europe’s richest leagues.
The Europa Conference League will ensure some lower-ranked nations have clubs involved beyond August after years of struggling to advance to the Champions League and Europa League groups.
In 2018, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli said as then-leader of the European Club Association that some members wanted the new competition to “allow them to grow and showcase their players going forward.”
In Lithuania and Slovenia, this is it.
Since 2009, 32 teams played in the Champions League group stage and 48 in the Europa League.
Now until 2024, there will be 32 in each of the Champions, Europa and Europa Conference Leagues. All will play in round-robin groups of four teams feeding into knockout rounds.
A total of 96 teams playing in the September-to-December groups instead of 80 does not mean more entries from domestic leagues. Each country keeps its overall quota of teams, from seven for England, Spain, Germany and Italy down to three for the minnows.
A big change is teams from leagues ranked No. 17 downward have no direct entry to the Europa League.
Teams from all lower-ranked countries are among more than 180 playing in the Europa Conference League across the season.
All 55 UEFA member federations should be represented with just one each from the five top-ranked leagues that include France.
However, when Tottenham, Roma, Union Berlin and Rennes start in the two-leg playoff round, Spain could be missing.
La Liga’s seventh-place team, Villarreal, can earn a ticket to the next Champions League groups by beating Manchester United on Wednesday in the Europa League final. That would vacate Spain’s Europa Conference place.
Similarly, the Europa Conference League winner is offered an upgrade into the next Europa League.
WHO WILL PLAY?
Another quirk of the new system — some teams will play in all three competitions next season. Look for domestic title winners losing early in the Champions League qualifiers to move across to the Europa, then be eliminated again and land in the Europa Conference.
Those national champions have their own qualifying path and avoid big-league teams.
The main Europa Conference qualifying route is also for teams with a high placing from mid-ranked leagues — Anderlecht, Vitesse Arnhem, Trabzonspor — plus domestic cup winners, league runners-up and other high-place teams from lower-ranked leagues.
No team gets direct entry into the Europa Conference group stage. Even Tottenham and Roma enter the playoff round scheduled Aug. 19 and 26. It will see 22 winners advance to the groups joined by 10 losers from the Europa League playoff round.
Only group winners in December will advance directly to the round of 16. They will be joined by eight winners of another new feature — a knockout playoff round in February.
Those two-leg playoffs will include the eight Europa Conference group runners-up and eight third-place teams from Europa groups.
The last-16 playoff bracket is then a traditional path to Tirana for the May 25 final.
The Europa Conference League winner must play at least 15 games in the competition, two more than the minimum needed to win the Champions League.
Don’t expect top-league teams to get rich trying.
UEFA has yet to announce the prize money fund or guarantees for each team. Unofficial reported figures suggest almost 3 million euros ($3.7 million) for entering the group stage, and 166,000 euros ($203,000) per point won.
It suggests the winner could earn at least 20 million euros ($24 million) compared to the 125 million euros ($152 million) Bayern Munich, the last Champions League winner, got from UEFA.
As its name suggests, the Europa Conference League is effectively a Europa League subsidiary. Broadcast and sponsor deals are bundled for the two competitions both playing on Thursdays.
The Europa League is worth around 550 million euros ($670 million) this season from the group stage onward, and an increase is promised for the 2021-24 sales cycle.
Around 250 million euros ($300 million) has been forecast for the first Europa Conference League.
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