When the Nations League was first announced by UEFA around a decade ago, many observers shook their heads and sighed. Here was European football’s governing body once again meddling with the sport that so many hold so dear, the thinking went, as the game’s administrators went about their usual process of self-righteously fixing something that wasn’t even broken to begin with.

The new competition confused people but to be fair, UEFA’s lengthy documents and nifty flow-charts explaining how it would all work were about as clear as mud. It became apparent that like so many games, the best way to learn the Nations League’s format would be to pick it up as we went along during its first iteration.

It wasn’t long before the tide of opinion started to turn. Few could complain about the scheduling of the matches or the new fixtures that populated the calendar, given these replaced meaningless international friendlies. Nations were competing against rivals of similar stature, which provided even, competitive matches – something that rarely exists in international football outside of biennial tournaments. And as we Scots know only too well, success would be accompanied with tangible benefits, such as a play-off spot for the European Championships.

Now, the Nations League is largely viewed in positive terms. True, that optimism might well evaporate when Scotland stop enjoying success in it – the national team have topped their group in both editions of the tournament so far, securing back-to-back promotions – but the general consensus seems to be that UEFA got this one right.

Football fans are like everyone else: uneasy and occasionally dismissive when presented with change, particularly when it comes to something that they are so passionate about. It was a similar story with UEFA’s latest brainchild, the Europa Conference League; largely greeted with a shrug of the shoulders but one that is gaining popularity. Well, at least in my household.

It’s important I lay my cards on the table: I don’t really care about the Champions League. Like so many others, I grew up spellbound watching Europe’s elite teams slug it out on an annual basis and marvelled at wonderful players and teams I’d never heard of as I learned about the sport’s rich tapestry.

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Somewhere along the way, though, it started to become less and less meaningful. I look around now and see the same handful of teams contesting the same knockout ties on an annual basis, backed to the hilt by venture capitalists and hedge funds, and I struggle to see the point. I enjoy watching the world’s best players and teams competing against each other for the sheer spectacle but I couldn’t give a monkeys who lifts ‘ol’ big ears’ come the end of it all. Ironically, all of the obscene wealth pouring into Europe’s top club competition, funnelled through this sovereign wealth fund or that oil consortium, makes it hard for me to get truly invested in the Champions League.

I’m also an unabashed football romantic. I enjoy seeing teams from lesser nations embark on continental cup runs, especially those clubs that are typically starved of success. I like seeing new contenders come to the fore on an annual basis and interesting ties thrown up in the knockout rounds between teams I’m vaguely familiar with. Novelty, variety – call it what you will. It is something the Conference League provides in spades; a welcome reprieve to the closed shop that is the Champions League.

Take tonight, by way of an example. Fourteen different countries – including the likes of Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Moldova – are represented in the 16 teams that will contest the second leg of the play-off round and the winners will advance to the last 16, where they’ll be paired alongside a group winner. All in all, there are 21 nations represented in the 24 teams that remain in the competition, and no country has any more than two.


Compare that to the knockout rounds of the Champions League, where 16 teams from seven different nations will compete for the cup. And we can say with some certainty that the winners, runners-up and semi-finalists will hail from the ‘Big Five’ leagues. Only the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain can conceivably go all the way and lift this year’s trophy, and it will be the same small cabal – with one or two additions – that will be in the reckoning again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

I hate to break it to everyone that got the pitchforks out when the prospect of the European Super League was torpedoed before it could get off the ground but the ESL is already here: we just call it the Champions League. Europe’s premier club competition is little more than a plaything for the super-rich, an exclusive club for the top 0.001 per cent where the entry fee is the GDP of a medium-sized nation.

Count me out. Maybe it’s the romantic in me but the Champions League is so far removed from its predecessor, the European Cup, that it’s barely recognisable. By comparison, the Conference League feels like a throwback to a bygone era, where top teams from lesser nations embark on European runs that simply mean more to all involved due to their scarcity.

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Don’t take my word for it. Last season’s inaugural tournament was won by Roma – a large club from a prominent league, admittedly – as the giallorossi claimed the first major European trophy in their illustrious history under the management of Jose Mourinho. It was a fifth continental cup for one of the most successful coaches in the sport yet the Portuguese struggled to hold back the tears in the post-match press conference as he compared it to his own past glories.

“It is one thing to win when everyone expects it, when you made the investments to win,” he explained. “But it's quite another to win when something feels immortal – that feels truly special.”

‘The Special One’ certainly knows a thing or two about that. Immortality awaits for the winners of this year’s Conference League and it is anybody’s guess as to who will go all the way. Variety is the spice of life and Europe’s third-tier competition has plenty of it – and after years of the same old faces doing the rounds in the bland Champions League, it has come not a moment too soon.