September 17, (THEWILL) – On Thursday, as THEWILL reported, Taiwo Awoniyi’s Bundesliga side Union Berlin lost to Ubong Ekpai’s Slavia Prague of the Czech First League in the opening game of the maiden edition of the new interclub competition for men’s football teams across Europe, the UEFA Europa Conference League.
According to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) information about the competition, the Conference League is the third season-long UEFA men’s football club competition.
UEFA introduced the new club competition structure to ensure at least 34 UEFA national associations are represented in the group stage of one or more competitions, which they may have otherwise lost out of with just the previous two standard interclub competitions in European football.
There will be a minimum of 14 domestic champions in the UEFA Champions League group stage, between eight and 11 domestic champions in the UEFA Europa League group stage, and between nine and 12 domestic champions in the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage.
With the new UEFA Conference League format, all UEFA member associations will have access to all three club competitions, while the quotas assigned quotas to each association will remain unchanged.
Speaking on the benefits, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said: “The new UEFA club competition makes UEFA’s club competitions more inclusive than ever before. There will be more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages.”
This will be the first time in more than 20 years that there will be a change in the European competition format from its two-tiered class of competitions, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, with its familiar set of qualifying norms and almost regular set of qualifying teams.
The Conference League was structured to have 184 teams involved over the course of the season. Of this number, there is at least one from each of the 55 associations under UEFA, with Tottenham Hotspur making the cut from the English Premier League last season and Union Berlin from the Bundesliga.
The rest of the 46 clubs that will make up the total of 184 will transfer from either the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League to the UEFA Europa Conference League in the course of the 2021/2022 interclub competitions across Europe.
All the teams that reached the Conference League group stages and played matches on Thursday had to qualify through a series of matches. For instance, as THEWILL reported, Tottenham Hotspurs played against Pacos de Ferreira away (lost 1-0) and home (won 3-0) to progress to the group stage with a 3-1 aggregate.
These qualifiers produced a final cast of 32 teams for the group stages, comprising 17 teams from the UEFA Europa Conference League main path of qualification, five teams from the UEFA Europa Conference League champions path, and 10 teams eliminated in the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
There are eight groups, tagged A to H, each one consisting of four teams. Thursday’s game kicked off the group competitions where each team will vie to take the group winning position to have a chance to enter the knockout rounds: the round of 16, the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final.
At the end of the first round of group matches, all eight group leaders automatically go through to the last 16. Before the round of 16 begins, there will be additional knockout round play-offs between the eight group runners-up and the third-ranked teams of the UEFA Europa League groups.
The teams that emerge victorious continue to the last 16. The quarter-finals follow that round all the way to the conclusion of the tournament.
The Executive Committee also announced that the UEFA Conference League final will take place at the 21,690-capacity National Arena (Arena Kombëtare) of Tirana, Albania’s capital city. The stadium opened in November 2019 with a European qualifier between Albania and France.
As was obvious in Thursday’s fixtures, all UEFA Europa Conference League fixtures will take place on Thursdays alongside UEFA Europa League games. The group stages that began on Thursday, September 16, will continue until Thursday, December 9.
The teams that make it to the knockout round play-off will be up for the knockout draw billed for Monday, December 13. The knockout round play-offs will take place on February 17 and 24 next year. Successful teams will be up for the February 25 round of 16 draws.
Based on the draw, teams still in the competition will clash in the round of 16 fixtures on March 10 and 17, before the draw for the quarter-finals and semi-finals are held on March 18. After the quarter-finals on April 7 and 14, with the semi-finals closely following on April 28 and May 5, two teams will remain to play for a winner at the National Arena in Tirana on May 25.
It becomes immediately clear that, similar to the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, the Conference League competition will run throughout the football calendar for this season and, at the very least, will remain this way for the 2021–2024 cycle, as announced.
For winners of the UEFA Conference League, a guaranteed slot in the following season’s UEFA Europa League group stage is promised but that will be if they have not already qualified for the UEFA Champions League via their domestic competition, in the same season.
As currently structured, the introduction of the UEFA Europa Conference League will have no impact on the UEFA Champions League. However, there are some changes to keep in mind because play-off games will occur between the Conference League teams and others in the UCL and the UEL.
In the first place, the UEFA Europa League group stage will be reduced from 48 to 32 teams – eight groups of four. And, the eight UEFA Europa League group winners progress automatically to the round of 16. There will also be additional knockout round play-offs prior to the UEFA Europa League round of 16. These will be between the eight UEFA Europa League group runners-up and the eight third-ranked teams of the UEFA Champions League groups.
The competition also has its own logo, which was in use for Thursday’s first set of group matches. The logo was designed to be bold and iconic making sure it stands out on all applications and differs from the logos of its other two UEFA interclub competitions. The design features the tournament’s new trophy, which is placed between two half circles, consistent with the logo of the UEFA Europa League.
However, the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy and the competition’s brand identity will be unveiled in due course.