The UEFA Europa League (abbreviated as UEL) is an annual football club competition organised by UEFA since 1971 for eligible European football clubs. Clubs qualify for the competition based on their performance in their national leagues and cup competitions. It is the second-tier competition of European club football, ranking below the UEFA Champions League.
Previously called the UEFA Cup, the competition has been known as the UEFA Europa League since the 2009–10 season, following a change in format. For UEFA footballing records purposes, the UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League are considered the same competition, with the change of name being simply a rebranding.
In 1999, the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup was abolished and merged with the UEFA Cup. For the 2004–05 competition a group stage was added prior to the knockout phase. The 2009 re-branding included a merge with the UEFA Intertoto Cup, producing an enlarged competition format, with an expanded group stage and a change in qualifying criteria. The winner of the UEFA Europa League qualifies for the UEFA Super Cup and, since the 2014–15 season, the following season's UEFA Champions League, entering at the group stage.
The title has been won by 28 clubs, 13 of which have won the title more than once. The most successful club in the competition is Sevilla, with five titles. The current champions are Chelsea, after defeating Arsenal 4–1 in the 2019 final to win their second title.
The UEFA Cup was preceded by the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was a European football competition played between 1955 and 1971. The competition grew from 11 teams during the first cup (1955–58) to 64 teams by the last cup which was played in 1970–71. It had become so important on the European football scene that in the end it was taken over by UEFA and relaunched the following season as the UEFA Cup.
The UEFA Cup was first played in the 1971/72 season, with an all-English final of Wolverhampton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur, with Spurs taking the first honours. The title was retained by another English club, Liverpool, in 1973, who defeated Borussia Mönchengladbach in the final. Borussia would win the competition in 1975 and 1979, and reach the final again in 1980. Feyenoord won the cup in 1974 after defeating Tottenham Hotspur 4–2 on aggregate (2–2 in London, 2–0 in Rotterdam). Liverpool won the competition for the second time in 1976 after defeating Club Brugge in the final.
During the 1980s, IFK Göteborg (1982 and 1987) and Real Madrid (1985 and 1986) won the competition twice each, with Anderlecht reaching two consecutive finals, winning in 1983 and losing to Tottenham Hotspur in 1984. The year 1989 saw the commencement of the Italian clubs' domination, when Diego Maradona's Napoli defeated Stuttgart. The 1990s started with two all-Italian finals, and in 1992, Torino lost the final to Ajax on the away goals rule. Juventus won the competition for a third time in 1993 and Internazionale kept the cup in Italy the following year. The year 1995 saw a third all-Italian final, with Parma proving their consistency, after two consecutive Cup Winners' Cup finals. The only final with no Italians during that decade was in 1996. Internazionale reached the final the following two years, losing in 1997 to Schalke 04 on penalties, and winning yet another all-Italian final in 1998, taking home the cup for the third time in only eight years. Parma won the cup in 1999, which ended the Italian-domination era. By chance, it was, as of 2019, the last UEFA Cup/Europa League final appearance for any Italian club.
Liverpool won the competition for the third time in 2001. In 2002 Feyenoord Rotterdam won it for the 2nd time in the club history by defeating Borussia Dortmund during the final in their own stadium, De Kuip in Rotterdam with 3–2. Porto triumphed in the 2003 and 2011 tournaments, with the latter against Portuguese team Braga. In 2004, the cup returned to Spain with Valencia being victorious, and then Sevilla succeeded on two consecutive occasions in 2006 and 2007, the latter in a final against fellow Spaniards Espanyol. Either side of Sevilla's success, two Russian teams, CSKA Moscow in 2005 and Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2008, had their glory and yet another former Soviet club, Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk, won in 2009. Atlético Madrid would themselves win twice in three seasons, in 2010 and 2012, the latter in another all-Spanish final. In 2013, Chelsea would become the first Champions League holders to win the UEFA Cup/Europa League the following year. In 2014, Sevilla won their third cup in eight years after defeating Benfica on penalties. Just one year later, in 2015, Sevilla won their fourth UEFA Cup/Europa League and , in an unprecedented feat, they defended their title a third year in a row beating Liverpool FC in the 2016 final, making Sevilla FC the most successful team in the history of the competition with 5 titles.
Since the 2009–10 season, the competition has been known as the UEFA Europa League. At the same time, the UEFA Intertoto Cup, UEFA's third-tier competition, was discontinued and merged into the new Europa League.
UEFA had reportedly considered adding a third-tier competition since at least 2015, believing that a bottom-level tournament could act as a means of giving clubs from lower-ranked UEFA member countries a chance of progressing to stages beyond those in which they would generally be eliminated in the Champions League and Europa League. In mid 2018 talk of an announcement intensified, with news sources claiming an agreement had already been reached for the competition to be launched and that the 48-team Europa League group stage would be split into two, with the lower half forming the nucleus of what would be the new event.
On 2 December 2018, UEFA announced that the competition – provisionally known as "Europa League 2" or just "UEL2" – was to be launched as part of the 2021–24 three-year competition cycle, with UEFA announcing that the new tournament would bring "more matches for more clubs and more associations".
The UEFA Cup, also known as the Coupe UEFA, is the trophy awarded annually by UEFA to the football club that wins the UEFA Europa League. Before the 2009–10 season, both the competition and the trophy were known as the 'UEFA Cup'.
Before the competition was renamed the UEFA Europa League in the 2009–10 season, the UEFA regulations stated that a club could keep the original trophy for a year before returning it to UEFA. After its return, the club could keep a four-fifths scale replica of the original trophy. Upon their third consecutive win or fifth win overall, a club could retain the trophy permanently. However, under the new regulations, the trophy remains in UEFA's keeping at all times. A full-size replica trophy is awarded to each winner of the competition. Furthermore, a club that wins three consecutive times or five times overall will receive a multiple-winner badge. As of 2016–17, only Sevilla has earned the honour to wear the multiple-winner badge, having achieved both prerequired feats in 2016.
A musical theme for the competition, the Anthem, is played before every Europa League game at a stadium hosting such an event and also before every television broadcast of a Europa League game as a musical element of the competition's opening sequence.
The competition's first anthem was composed by Yohann Zveig and recorded by the Paris Opera in early 2009. The theme for the re-branded UEFA Cup competition was first officially unveiled at the Grimaldi Forum on 28 August 2009 before the 2009–10 season group stage draw. A new anthem was composed by Michael Kadelbach and recorded in Berlin and was launched as part of the competition's rebranding at the start of the 2015–16 season.
Qualification for the competition is based on UEFA coefficients, with better entrance rounds being offered to the more successful nations. In practice, each association has a standard number of three berths, except:
- Nations ranked 52 and 54 (Andorra and San Marino in the 2013–14 season), which have two berths
- The nation ranked 55 (Gibraltar in the 2014–15 season) which has one berth.
- Liechtenstein, which qualifies only the Cup winners
Usually, each country's places are awarded to teams who finish in various runners-up places in its top-flight league and the winner of the main cup competition. Typically the teams qualifying via the league are those in the highest places not eligible for the UEFA Champions League; however, the Belgian league awards one place via a playoff between First A and First B teams. A few countries have secondary cup competitions, but the only ones whose winners are currently granted a UEFA Europa League place are England's and France's.
A team may qualify for European competitions through more than one route. In all cases, if a club is eligible to enter the UEFA Champions League then the Champions League place takes precedence and the club does not enter the UEFA Europa League. The UEFA Europa League place is then granted to another club or vacated if the maximum limit of teams qualifying for European competitions is exceeded. If a team qualifies for European competition through both winning a cup and league placing, the "spare" UEFA Europa League place will go to the highest placed league team which has not already qualified for European competition, depending on the rules of the national association, or vacated, if the described limit is reached.
The top three ranked associations may qualify for the fourth berth if both the Champions League and Europa League champions are from that association and do not qualify for European competition through their domestic performance. In that case, the fourth-placed team in that association will join the Europa League instead of the Champions League, in addition to their other qualifying teams.
More recently, clubs that are knocked out of the qualifying round and the group stage of the Champions League can also join the UEFA Europa League, at different stages (see below). Formerly, the reigning champions qualified to defend their title, but since 2015 they qualify for the Champions League. From 1995 to 2015, three leagues gained one extra place via the UEFA Respect Fair Play ranking.
UEFA coefficients were introduced in 1980 and, until 1999, they gave a greater number of berths in UEFA Cup to the more successful nations. Three nations had four places, five nations had three places, thirteen nations had two places, and eleven nations only one place. Since 1999, a similar system has been used for the UEFA Champions League. Before 1980, the entrance criteria of the last Fairs Cup was used.
The competition was traditionally a pure knockout tournament. All ties were two-legged, including the final. Starting with the 1997–98 season, the final became a one-off match, but all other ties remained two-legged.
Before the 2004–05 season, the tournament consisted of one qualifying round, followed by a series of knockout rounds. The sixteen non-qualifiers from the final qualifying round of the Champions League entered at the first round proper; later in the tournament, the survivors were joined by third-place finishers from the (first) group phase of the Champions League.
From the 2004–05 season, the competition started with two knockout qualifying rounds held in July and August. Participants from associations ranked 18 and lower entered the first qualifying round with those from associations ranked 9–18 joining them in the second qualifying round. In addition, three places in the first qualifying round were reserved for the UEFA Fair Play ranking winners (until 2015–16), and eleven places in the second qualifying round for the UEFA Intertoto Cup winners.
Winners of the qualifying rounds then joined teams from the associations ranked 1–13 in the first round proper. In addition, non-qualifiers in the third qualifying round of the Champions League also joined the competition at this point along with the current title-holders (unless they had qualified for the Champions League via their national league), for a total of 80 teams in the first round.
After the first knockout round, the 40 survivors entered a group phase, with the clubs being drawn into eight groups of five each. Unlike the Champions League group phase, the UEFA Cup group phase was played in a single round-robin format, with each club playing two home and two away games. The top three teams in each of the eight groups qualified for the main knockout round along with the eight third-placed teams in the Champions League group phase. From then on a series of two-legged knockout ties were played before a single-legged final, traditionally held on a Wednesday in May, exactly one week before the Champions League final.
In 2009–10 season, the competition was rebranded as the UEFA Europa League in a bid to increase the competition's profile. An extra 8 teams now qualify for the group stage consisting of 12 groups with four teams each (in a double round-robin), with teams finishing on the top two places in each group progressing. The competition then progresses in much the same way as the previous format, with four rounds of two-legged knockout rounds and a one-off final held at a neutral ground that meets UEFA's Category Four stadium criteria. The final is played in May, on the Wednesday ten days before the Champions League final.
Qualification has changed significantly. Associations ranked 7–9 in the UEFA coefficients sent the cup winners and three (two since 2015–16 season) other teams to the UEFA Europa League qualification, all other nations sent a cup winner and two other teams, except Andorra and San Marino, who sent only a cup winner and a runner-up, and Liechtenstein, who sent only a cup winner. Since Gibraltar was accepted as a full UEFA member at the UEFA congress held in London on 24 May 2013, their cup winner also qualified for Europa League. Usually, the other teams will be the next highest ranked clubs in each domestic league after those qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, but France and England will continue to use one spot for their league cup winners. With the abolition of the Intertoto Cup, all participants of the Europa League are qualified through domestic routes. Generally, the higher an association is ranked in the UEFA coefficients, the later its clubs start in the qualification. However, every team except for the title-holder (up to 2014–15 season) and the highest ranked teams (usually the cup winner and/or the best Europa League qualified team) from the top (six in 2012–15 seasons, 12 since 2015–16 season) associations had to play at least one qualification round.
Apart from the teams mentioned, an additional 15 teams eliminated in the Champions League third qualifying round are transferred to the Europa League play-off round, and the 10 losing teams in the Champions League play-off round are transferred to the Europa League group stage. The 12 winners and the 12 runners-up in the group stage advanced to the knock out round, together with eight third-placed teams from the Champions League group stage.
In 2014, the distribution was changed to broaden the appeal of the competition, namely through giving the Europa League champions a Champions League qualification berth, which has been used since. More teams automatically qualify for the group stage. If cup winners had already qualified for European competition through league performance, their place through the league is vacated and goes to the best ranked teams not qualified for European competition. This means that the cup runner-up is no longer qualified through the cup berth. These rules came into effect for the 2015–16 season.
The access list above is provisional, as changes will need to be made in the following cases:
- If the Champions League title holders or the Europa League title holders have qualified for the Europa League through domestic performance, their berth in the Europa League is vacated (not replaced by another team from the same association), and cup winners of the highest-ranked associations are moved to a later round accordingly.
- In some cases where changes to the access list of the Champions League are made, the number of losers of the Champions League third qualifying round which are transferred to the Europa League is increased or decreased from the default number of 15, which means changes to the access list of the Europa League will also need to be made.
- Because a maximum of five teams from one association can enter the UEFA Champions League, if both the Champions League title holders and the Europa League title holders are from the same top three ranked association and finish outside the top four of their domestic league, the fourth-placed team of their association will be moved to the Europa League and enter the group stage, which means changes to the access list of the Europa League may also need to be made.
Beginning with the 2018–19 tournament, all domestic champions eliminated in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League will transfer to the Europa League, rather than just teams that are eliminated in the third-qualifying and play-off rounds. Europa League qualifying will also provide a separate champions route for these teams, allowing more opportunities for domestic league champions to compete against each other.
The announcement of the Europa Conference League, a tertiary competition which would serve to split off the lower-ranked teams in the Europa League to give them a greater chance to compete, included a document from UEFA listing their intentions for qualification to the Europa League from 2021 onwards. With a majority of the former entrants into the Europa League now participating solely in the UEL2, the Europa League itself would have a greatly reduced format which will focus primarily around its group stage. There would also be an additional knockout round before the knockout phase proper, allowing for third-placed teams in the Champions League group stage to fall into the Europa League while still keeping the knockout stage itself at only 16 teams total.
Similar to the UEFA Champions League, the prize money received by the clubs is divided into fixed payments based on participation and results, and variable amounts that depend of the value of their TV market.
For the 2019–20 season, group stage participation in the Europa League awarded a base fee of €2,920,000. A victory in the group pays €570,000 and a draw €190,000. Also, each group winner earns €1,000,000 and each runner-up €500,000. Reaching the knock-out stage triggers additional bonuses: €500,000 for the round of 32, €1,100,000 for the round of 16, €1,500,000 for the quarter-finals and €2,400,000 for the semi-finals. The losing finalists receive €4,500,000 and the champions receive €8,500,000.
- Preliminary round: €220,000
- First qualifying round: €240,000
- Second qualifying round: €260,000
- Third qualifying round: €280,000
- Play-off round elimination: €300,000
- Base fee for group stage: €2,920,000
- Group match victory: €570,000
- Group match draw: €190,000
- Group winners: €1,000,000
- Group runners-up: €500,000
- Round of 32: €500,000
- Round of 16: €1,100,000
- Quarter-finals: €1,500,000
- Semi-finals: €2,400,000
- Losing finalist: €4,500,000
- Winners: €8,500,000
The UEFA Europa League is sponsored by five multinational corporations; the current tournament sponsors are:
- Heineken International (Amstel being the main brand, with local brands being also advertised)
- Kia Motors
- Enterprise Rent-A-Car
- Hankook Tire
Molten is a secondary sponsor and supplies the official match ball. Since the inception of Europa League brand, the tournament has used its own hoardings (in that year it debuted in the round of 32) like UEFA Champions League. LED hoardings made their debut in the 2012–13 final and will appear in 2015–16 season from the round of 16; in the same season, from the group stage, teams are not allowed to show their sponsors.. It will appear in the 2018–19 season for selected matches in the group stages and the round of 32. Individual clubs may wear jerseys with advertising, even if such sponsors conflict with those of the Europa League. However, only one sponsorship is permitted per jersey unless it is a non profit sponsor (plus that of the manufacturer), and if clubs play a match in a country where the relevant sponsorship category is restricted (such as alcohol in the case of France), then they must remove that logo from their jerseys.
Records and statistics
The UEFA Cup finals were played over two legs until 1997. The first final was played on 3 May 1972 in Wolverhampton and 17 May 1972 in London. The first leg between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur was won 2–1 by the away side. The second leg finished as a 1–1 draw, meaning that Tottenham Hotspur became the first UEFA Cup winners.
The one-match finals in pre-selected venues were introduced in 1998. A venue must meet or exceed UEFA Category three standards to host UEFA Cup finals. On two occasions, the final was played at a finalist's home ground: Feyenoord defeated Borussia Dortmund at De Kuip, Rotterdam, in 2002, and Sporting CP lost to CSKA Moscow at their own Estádio José Alvalade, Lisbon, in 2005.
The winner of the last UEFA Cup final (prior to the competition being rebranded as the UEFA Europa League) was Shakhtar Donetsk on 20 May 2009. The Ukrainian team beat Werder Bremen of Germany 2–1 at Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium, Istanbul.