Differing mindsets have Germany, Italy going in opposite directions
Serie A's disdain for the Europa League has cost it a Champions League spot
With spot going to the Bundesliga, Germany has passed Italy in UEFA ranks
Italian clubs are hurting themselves with flawed views about what 'matters'
Villarreal beat Napoli 2-1 in the Europa League Round of 32 a week ago, and though it was hardly a match that gripped the whole of Europe, the result will reverberate around the continent for many years to come. With Napoli's loss, Italy slipped to fourth place in UEFA's league coefficient ranking and will be able to send only three teams to the Champions League in 2012-13. The Bundesliga, now third in the rankings behind England's Premier League and Spain's La Liga, will pick up Serie A's vacated spot, meaning Germany can once again send four clubs to Europe's premier competition after having to make do with three since 2002-03.
The Bundesliga sent out a press release hailing the news, but on the whole the reaction around Germany was fairly muted. Fans had known this would be the league's year for some time. Last season, the Bundesliga seemed to have done enough to overtake the Italians, but Inter's win in the Champions League final kept the status quo intact for another campaign. This season, however, only a total triumph by the Italian teams in both competitions would have halted the Bundesliga's advance. Germany started 4.79 points ahead and has now extended its lead to 8.12. Extrapolate those figures over the next two years, and Germany is on pace to overtake Spain as well.
There's a very different mindset in Italy. A few newspapers have asked pertinent questions about the state of the Italian game after three first-leg home defeats for the Italian clubs still in the Champions League (Inter, Milan, Roma) -- "We are like Turkey, we only pretend we're very big," wrote Gazzetta dello Sport -- but many Italian supporters seem angry and stunned. There is a sense of injustice, and it stems from the methodology of the coefficient. Germany, the argument goes, has only overtaken Italy by virtue of its strong performance in the Europa League, a competition that has traditionally been taken less seriously in Italy and should therefore not carry equal weight.
Before attacking the rankings, it's important to understand how they work. Regardless of the competition, wins in Europe are rewarded with two points and draws with one. Points are halved for qualifying rounds. Bonus points are awarded for qualification for the Champions League group stage (four), getting into the last 16 of the Champions League (five) and making the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals of either competition (one). The overall number is then divided by the number of teams from each association. To make the numbers more representative, UEFA adds up results over a five-year period.
In Nyon, where UEFA is based, the "Europa League doesn't matter" stance naturally carries little weight. Michel Platini and Co. would stress that attitudes toward the Europa League differ greatly across that continent and that Serie A is the only prominent league that treats the competition with open disdain. In England and Spain, clubs generally try to win the competition, not to seek an early exit. In France and Germany, on the other hand, the old UEFA Cup has always been taken more seriously, and that won't change simply because coefficients and the allocations of Champions League spots has become a concern.
It's also important to remember what the coefficient is meant to do. The goal isn't to compare Europe's top teams, but rather to gauge the collective strength of entire leagues. Statistical principals suggest that the sample size should be as large as possible, so it's only logical that the result of Germany's sixth-place team and the equivalent in Italy should matter. Stats don't account for motivation, but that doesn't mean the model is flawed.
To put it bluntly: Italy can no longer afford to view the Europa League with such disdain, and the clubs in Serie A should know that. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, when Serie A regularly rated as the strongest league in Europe, failure to take the UEFA Cup seriously didn't affect overall results. A strong performance in the Champions League would outweigh a poor showing in the UEFA Cup. But since 2002-03, when three Italian clubs made it to the Champions League semifinals and Italy topped the UEFA rankings for the final time, Serie A has been in steady decline. First Spain powered ahead. Then England did too thanks to sustained success in both competitions. Since 2004-05, Italy hasn't even managed to be the second-best-performing league in Europe. The fact that Inter and Milan managed to win the Champions League in the least four years doesn't change that reality.
The Bundesliga, meanwhile, lost its fourth spot to England in 2002, precisely at the time when two German clubs (Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen) were doing exceptionally well in the Champions League. But a little further down, the overall quality of the German sides (and the national team) had already started to dip.
The "it doesn't matter" argument is simply nonsensical. The Europa League does matter, at least in terms of results. It was no secret that Italy was in danger of losing its fourth spot; if clubs like Juve, Roma, Lazio or Napoli were really happy to crash out early (as their supporters choose to believe), they were shooting themselves in the foot. Picking up maximum points would have helped Italy maintain position and thus directly benefited the clubs themselves. What good is concentrating on the Champions League at the expense of the Europa League when ignoring the latter makes qualifying for the former more difficult? It's a self-defeating practice.
(One wonders if Italian clubs would feel differently if they had modern, fan-friendly stadiums they could sell out for Europa League games, but that's a different story.)
That said, those who argue the Champions League and Europa League shouldn't be weighted equally do have a point. And in truth, UEFA has long recognized that principle. Success in the Champions League is much more important statistically, as generous bonus points are rewarded for getting in and out of the group stage. For example: Inter, Milan and Roma qualifying for the last 16 earned Serie A 27 bonus points this year alone; for the Bundesliga to equal that number in the Europa League, it would have to place nine teams into the final. Impossible.
In 2009-10, German clubs outscored Italian clubs by 2.6 coefficient points even though Internazionale won the competition, a huge margin. It'll be fascinating to see how the new numbers affect the respective leagues in the long run. Bundesliga CEO Christian Seiffert has certainly welcomed the improved position. "One more starting place in the Champions League has many benefits," he said. "The clubs are able to generate more income from stadiums and TV rights and bring additional money into the league."
There's a theory that earning four places will end up hurting the Germans because clubs like Schalke and Hamburg are not yet at the level of Juventus or Arsenal. It's a valid concern, but four starting places also creates a sense of stability at the top. With the exception of Bayern, German clubs have suffered from the fluctuations at the top of the table; no team could take Champions League qualification for granted and adjust its squad accordingly. Four places should make the balancing act a little easier. And the payoff is potentially massive: England's ascent in the rankings was a prelude to domination, as regular Champions League participants became even more powerful in both financial and sporting terms.
For Italy, conversely, it will be a long way back. Serie A and its supporters would do well to glean lessons from the fall from grace on the north side of the Alps. Blaming the system simply won't do.
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