Europa Conference League

What is the Europa Conference League? Europe's third club competition and how it will work

We have run through everything you need to know about the Europa Conference League, which will start in the 2021/22 season.

3:20pm on Sunday 23rd May 2021
Chris Myson

A new competition will soon be entering the football calendar, the UEFA Europa Conference League.

UEFA have announced all the details for what will become Europe’s third competition.

While some supporters will question whether another tournament is really needed in an already packed schedule, others will see it as a chance for their team to make a mark on Europe.

Here is everything you need to know about the Europa Conference League.

What is the Europa Conference League?

The UEFA Europa Conference League is a new continental competition which is scheduled to start from the 2021/22 football season.

Abbreviated as the UECL, the competition will also be referred to as the UEFA Conference League.

The Europa Conference League will be the third most prestigious UEFA competition.

Top spot will be retained by the Champions League and the existing Europa League will continue to represent the second-tier competition.

The Europa Conference League will be next in line, with UEFA saying in a statement that "the new competition is aimed at giving more clubs in more countries a chance to participate in European football."

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin insisted there was "widespread demand" for a third competition.

He wants the Europa Conference League to ensure a greater variety of countries are represented in the continental game.

Ceferin said: “This makes UEFA's club competitions more inclusive than ever before. More matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages.

“There was a widespread demand by all clubs to increase their chances of participating more regularly in European competition.

“This has been achieved with a strategic approach and in accordance with UEFA's objective of having both more quality and more inclusivity in our club competitions.”

The new European club tournament was approved in 2018 and the final decision came after a UEFA meeting in Dublin.

To justify the UECL’s inception, UEFA stated that a specific format will ensure at least 34 nations in Europe will have a chance to play in the group stages and experience continental football.

When will the Europa Conference League start?

Qualifying and play-off rounds for the UECL take place from July 8, 2021 and will run until August 26.

The first official group-stage matches in the Europa Conference League tournament are scheduled to begin from September 16.

UECL groups will be decided in the draw on August 27 after all of the qualification rounds are over.

The first final of Europe’s third competition is expected to be played on May 25, 2022, with Tirana, Albania confirmed as the venue.

Thursdays are already a key day in the football calendar because it is when Europa League matches are played.

UECL matches will also be played on Thursdays, albeit some of them will have earlier kick-off times than the Europa League contests to avoid a complete clash.

That leaves Tuesday and Wednesday clear for Champions League matches, though if there are scheduling conflicts some UECL games could also be played on those days.

What is the Europa Conference League format?

There are three qualifying rounds and a play-off round before the main tournament begins.

Then there are 32 teams who will play in the group stage of the UEFA Conference League.

The 32 is made up of 22 sides who have progressed through the Europa Conference League qualifying process and 10 sides who drop down into the tournament after losing in the Europa League play-offs.

Previously, elimination at that stage would have brought an early end to the continental campaigns of those teams. Now, they still have a chance to play in a European group stage via the UECL.

Similarly to the Champions League, the UECL will comprise of 32 teams split into eight groups of four.

Where the UECL format differs slightly is how teams progress to the knockout stages.

All eight group winners automatically progress to the Europa Conference League last 16, as is the case in the Champions League, while sides who end their group campaigns in third or fourth place are eliminated immediately.

However, teams who finish second face a further hurdle if they are to go through.

They must play in a play-off round against the eight teams who finished third in their Europa League groups, who get a lifeline by joining the UEFA Conference League.

The eight teams who emerge from that UECL play-off round join the eight group winners in the last 16.

From there, a normal knockout phase will follow with the last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

The winning team in the UEFA Europa Conference League earns direct entry to the group stage of the following season’s Europa League, unless they have qualified for the Champions League via another method.

How do you qualify for the Europa Conference League?

The top five nations as per the UEFA country coefficients are Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France.

Those countries will initially get one representative each in the UECL, though further teams from the top nations could drop into the competition based on how they do in various stages of the Europa League.

Two teams from each of the countries rated sixth to 15th will get a place in the UECL.

That includes Portugal, Russia, Belgium, Ukraine, Netherlands, Turkey, Austria, Denmark, Scotland and Czech Republic.

There are three spots available for all the other UEFA nations apart from Liechtenstein (1), Estonia, San Marino, Kosovo, the Faroe Islands and Andorra (all two).

Differences will exist in how each nation allocates their teams into the Europa Conference League.

In England, the winners of the EFL Cup, currently known as the Carabao Cup, will gain access to the UECL play-off round, unless they have otherwise qualified for the Champions League or Europa League.

If that team has already reached a higher competition, the UECL place goes to the team sitting sixth or seventh in the Premier League, depending on whether any of the top teams have won the FA Cup.

It should be simpler in the top nations where there is only one major domestic cup competition.

In Spain, Germany and Italy, the team finishing sixth goes into the UECL in most cases, while in Ligue 1 it is the fifth-placed team who gets the spot in the UECL play-off round.

Twenty teams who lose in the Champions League first qualifying round and preliminary round will move into UECL qualifying automatically by dropping into the tournament.

Eight teams who lose in the Europa League third qualifying round also subsequently drop into the UECL process, which includes a champions path and a main path.

Is the Europa Conference League the same as the European Super League?

No, the Europa Conference League is not the same as the European Super League.

The European Super League is (or was) a proposed breakaway competition backed by some of the continent’s top clubs.

However, the proposed Super League collapsed just 48 hours after the announcement of its launch in April 2021.

The current Champions League format is officially in place until 2024 and the UECL is an officially sanctioned UEFA competition that fits within the current established football calendar.

Europe’s third competition will not impact the running of the Europa League and the Champions League and will run alongside them.

The only change to either of those competitions will be 32 rather than the current 48 teams playing in the Europa League group stage, ensuring the same eight groups of four format across all three competitions.

What was the European Cup Winners’ Cup?

This is not the first time that UEFA have had three continental competitions running throughout a season.

The European Cup Winners’ Cup – which became known as the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup - previously ran from 1960 until it was abolished in 1999.

That tournament took place alongside the Champions League/European Cup and the UEFA Cup, which later came to be known as the Europa League.

Fiorentina were the first winners of the competition in 1961, beating Rangers in the only final that was played over two legs.

Atletico Madrid won the second competition, beating defending champions Fiorentina in the final.

The last-ever final of the competition saw Lazio defeat Mallorca 2-1 at Villa Park in England on May 19, 1999.

Barcelona had significant success in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, winning the trophy on a record four occasions in 1979, 1982, 1989 and 1997. They made six finals in total, losing out to Slovan Bratislava (1969) and Man Utd (1991).

Barca were the only team to win it on more than two occasions.

The two-time winners were Chelsea, Milan, Dynamo Kiev and Anderlecht.

Arsenal, PSG, Tottenham, Man City, Bayern, Juventus and Dortmund are among the other major clubs who won it once.

The tournament began to decline in popularity in the 1990s before it was abolished.

One argument was the growth of the Champions League decreased the quality and Interest levels of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup because more teams from each of the top leagues became eligible to qualify for the top competition instead of just the champions.

Once the tournament was abolished, the winners of domestic cups began to enter an expanded UEFA Cup/Europa League.

Until now with the start of the UECL, the Europa League was the only other main UEFA tournament outside the Champions League.

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