On the evening of Thursday, September 16, 2021, half of the Pros at Lincoln Red Imps wrote history with their home game against Greece’s PAOK Thessaloniki. Sooner or later it will work, they knew in Gibraltar, and now it’s time: the Gibraltar football team debuted in the group stage of one of the major European leagues. A landmark of the miniature country on the outskirts of Spain, which has a population of more than 33,000 and a member of UEFA since 2013.
That night there were a thousand spectators in Gibraltar’s only stadium, watching a duel between full Greek players and players from the home team who still had to work during the day. PAOK won as expected, 0-2, which didn’t spoil the fun for Gibraltar. European football is played in Gibraltar. And the great thing was that there were at least five more matches coming up.
And all thanks to the new conference league.
The tournament presented this season, in which AZ, Feyenoord and Vitesse participate on behalf of the Netherlands, is the prize winner among the European club championships. Previously, foreign adventures were intended only for participants in the European League and champions, but now clubs with modest potential are flying across the continent in search of fame and success.
In addition to the national champions of Gibraltar, this year also clubs from Armenia and Estonia appeared in the group stage of one of the European Championships. “Football is not just a sport for the rich, it belongs to everyone,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said at the draw in August. “Now players and fans all over Europe can dream about outdoor matches.”
In addition, the clubs receive 2.9 million euros in starting money, a few hundred thousand less than in the European League. A large sum, especially for clubs from smaller competitions.
Fans also seem to cherish the duels in the new competition. “The Conference League is a huge invention for us,” says Roderik van Veelen, president of the Association of Supporters. He talks about the trip, in early November, to London to duel with Tottenham Hotspur, which together with FC Roma is one of the biggest clubs out of 32 participants on paper. “If you have 1,500 people in the branch, it doesn’t really matter if it’s in the Champions League, the European League or the Conference League,” says Van Velen. “You experience European football. That’s what matters.”
The home match against Tottenham was also memorable. Gelredome was first sold in years and Vitesse won 1-0. The fans went crazy. The same is true of the 7,000 Feyenoord fans who witnessed their club’s 3-2 victory over Union Berlin. It was also an unforgettable trip.
At the same time, the Congress of Congress is sometimes spoken lightly. For example, Tottenham coach Nuno Espirito Santo has formed a B-team against Vitesse. He even wrote in the English media that clubs in the Premier League would prefer to avoid the tournament. Louis van Gaal is also not impressed. The Dutch national coach told the Dutch national team that the tournament is an extra burden for international players this fall. “And they play against Gott and Yul.”
Such comments can often be heard on talk shows, but not in Arnhem, says Van Velen, a Vitesse fan: “You build memories together in European matches. Liverpool and Werder Bremen went out in 2002 and Southampton in 2015 … I would not have missed That. At Southampton we continued to sing despite being behind 3-0. I keep hearing from older fans about the match against Real Madrid at our old Nieuw-Monnikenhuize stadium. These are the highlights of your years of support.”
Sports marketer Chris Wirts is also positive about the convention league. “It’s a boon for Dutch football,” he says. “Reviews are good too. Fans also don’t care which league their club plays in. As long as they win.
Woerts co-acquired the television rights to the tournament on Talpa’s behalf. The matches, which the European Union merges with the matches of the European League, are broadcast on the Veronica channel. With three clubs in the Conference League and one in the Europa League, this channel has the wide range of two live matches to be broadcast.
“More than a million people watch the PSV and Feyenoord matches,” says Wirts. This represents about a quarter of all viewers. By comparison: between 600,000 and 800,000 people watch the Champions League broadcast on days when Ajax is not playing. Wirts: „It’s a myth that when big clubs like Juventus or Manchester United play, more people are watching. Private clubs that register.
The Conference League came under pressure in part from smaller members of the UEFA family. In 2016, they saw the path to access to the other leagues narrowed. Then UEFA awarded additional tickets for the Champions League to major countries such as Italy, Germany, England and Spain, at the expense of the national champions from the Netherlands, for example. The European League will also become a more exclusive tournament.
With the help of countries such as Moldova, Cyprus, Finland, Latvia and Serbia, which saw their chances of participation dwindling, a third tournament was held. One of which Peter Neuenhuis of sports consultancy Hypercube didn’t immediately understand was the marketing strategy. In the boardrooms of the soccer world, he made the comparison to a condom manufacturer. Suppose you sell three items. Then go to large, medium and small. Or do you choose the large, extra large and royal size? “
In other words: the “mini” conference league was between the football leagues of Nieuwenhuis. He championed a king-sized concept at the helm of the Champions League, which in his opinion could have generated more value. Because even though clubs are embracing the Conference League, it’s not profitable. One insider describes the tournament as a “great support show”. There are countries where UEFA itself has to take care of distributing the images because there is no media outlet available, such as Talpa in the Netherlands. UEFA funds the tournament largely from the proceeds of the European League.
Nieuwenhuis is still amazing about the League Conference. Something in the Dutch club’s favor right now: the points system behind the Conference League wins. The so-called transactions, in which an arrangement is kept that determines the distribution of European tickets. Simply put: the more often Vitesse, Arizona and Feyenoord win, the higher the chance of Holland getting two places in the main Champions League tournament in the near future.
“Many points are awarded in proportion to the quality of the competitors,” says Nieuwenhuis. It refers to the Euro Club index developed by him. This shows, for example, that Eerste Divisie Telstar or even the top clubs of the Dutch second division, on paper, should outperform Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps. While Tottenham is comparable to Ajax in terms of strength. „What are they looking for in C-competition? Sometimes the differences between participants are quite large, says Neuenhuis.
While the newcomers from Gibraltar, Estonia and Armenia no longer care about anything, the Dutch clubs are on their way for the winter. With more duels, there are also more profit premiums and points for the parameter list. Nieuwenhuis: The Netherlands is fortunate. We have three clubs that can earn points fairly easily. The second place in the Champions League is getting closer and closer.”
Sports marketer Wirts sees the same thing: “For years, Dutch clubs considered European matches to be nothing more than a school trip. They are finally starting to take it seriously.”
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