Memories from the ol’ UEFA cup Days

I always felt the UEFA cup was underappreciated as a club football competition. Elite talent and organization across the pitch with well drilled sergeants executing complex gameplans isn’t the reason you watched UEFA Cup. For that we have its older brother; the dapper successful, eligible Champions League. It is every player’s dream for their team to lift the coveted Champions league trophy. Nobody wants to even participate in the UEFA cup. By definition, Europe’s SECOND tier cup is full of flawed teams. The grueling Thursday games in Eastern European outposts is something to fear, not aspire to. But these conditions, along with teams from completely different strata of the football world colliding in unmerciful, sometimes sheer dangerous surroundings, definitely makes for pleasurable viewing for me.

Now I am not suggesting for a second you are guaranteed to get good football in a UEFA cup match. On the contrary, I would highly recommend you skip the entire first round. It is full of bigger clubs sending their reserves and smaller ones that shouldn’t be there. But, as the second round starts, chaos is unleashed. Managers are suddenly forced to play their strongest sides as the local leagues and cups slip away; their jobs very much on the hot seat. Watching a club like Fulham ride to the final while greater powers like Juventus fall to the wayside or the Spanish managers domination of the competition over recent years is both comedic and educational. That, my friends, is a mix too tempting for yours truly to pass on.

The 2005 final between Sporting CP and CSKA Moscow, is a prime example of why the UEFA cup (now Europa League, with a new added bonus of a Champions league spot for its winner) is misunderstood. A game in Lisbon, the home stadium of Sporting CP, between these two was not a game I planned to watch or even really knew was on. At the time, I was totally consumed with Barcelona’s resurgence under the leadership of Ronaldinho. Between that and the Chelsea revolution that had turned English football on its head, a game between Sporting and CSKA in a second tier competition never got the light of day in my world.  But when I turned to the game, already 20 minutes in, looking for any football action on a wednesday afternoon, I was immediately drawn to this game. And this was before the UEFA gods decided a little craziness was the missing ingredient and turned the match on its head in a most unexpected way.  

Sporting took the lead in the 29th minute with Rogerio, their Brazilian left back, finishing a flowing move with a bomb from deep and looked like they were in control. With young Portuguese midfielder Joao Moutinho pulling the strings, a one goal lead looked comfortable heading to the break.  But CSKA came out for the second half a new team. A badly defended free kick, which Aleksei Berezutsky headed in, started a series of events that ended with a Brazilian named Daniel Carvalho having a hat-trick of assists, Sporting CP stunned after losing 3-1 and a man named Wagner Love (so called for his affinity for the fairer sex) being immortalised in Russia.

Two moments of not covering on the counter (both goals come after Sporting had executed a move that led to a shot on target, from which counters sprang)  and one badly marked Berezutsky brother was all it took for the sporting dream to turn to a Portuguese nightmare. At the same time, believing, with their backs against the wall, led an unlikely group with low expectations to leave Lisbon heros for life in Moscow. These are the margins in which cup finals are decided by.  When the moment seems largest, when the lights are shining brightest; who will write their names in history? In the UEFA cup, it seems the who and how are always a surprise and the quest to find out is beyond enticing for me to keep tuned in.

Most of our sports viewing is geared, as it should be, on the quest for ultimate glory. In our everyday conversations, when we debate the merits of winning ugly or playing ‘sexy’ football; possession or gegenpressing; catenaccio and counterattacks; we only discuss the elite versions of whatever style it may be.  The Champions league is unanimously agreed to be the tournament where football is executed at its magnificent, mesmerizing best. Champagne football is a term thrown around and is frankly, fitting. The opulence of the players wages and lifestyles; the sheer star power and skill level being exhibited by all nationality of magicians all over the field. Brilliant goals, amazingly agile goalkeepers and managers with unmatched gameplans. Champagne indeed. Quenches the thirst of any fine football lover. But for those that can’t get by on just champagne; the addicts of this game; the TRUE FANS; sometimes champagne just don’t cut it. Sometimes you just need to slam shots of Jameson’s and feel the burn. For those days; those games; you have to go off the well beaten path and come check out the little brother. But be careful, the little brother is a bit wild and unruly.

Check out the highlights –– 2005 EUFA Cup Final