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Tottenham Hotspur and the Europa League: An Explainer

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It’s confusing, so let’s clear this up once and for all.

Standard Liege v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League - Group F - Stade Maurice Dufrasne Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur qualified for the Europa League today! Hooray!

Or did they? There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding all of the various permutations around English club team qualification for European competitions. That’s because UEFA, in their grand wisdom, made the rules somewhat byzantine and hard to follow, with a bunch of exceptions built in for winners of domestic cup competitions and the like.

It’s weird, and frankly, kind of stupid because it makes it really difficult to understand. I know — I screwed it up this morning several times while running Carty Free’s twitter feed!

But there definitely is an answer, and it’s been misreported in several locations. So we’re gonna put this issue to bed in the best way possible: Vox Media Explainer Style™!

So, are Tottenham in the Europa League or not?

They are! By virtue of their draw with Crystal Palace, combined with Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Wolves, Spurs finish in sixth place in the Premier League table. Fifth and sixth place (Leicester City and Spurs) automatically progress to the group stages of the Europa League, and seventh place (now Wolves) starts off in the Europa League’s 2nd round of qualification.

That last Europa League spot usually goes to the League Cup winner, but Manchester City won the League Cup and thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport they will be going to the Champions League, so it reverts to the seventh place Premier League team. That’s Wolves.

But what about if Arsenal wins the FA Cup? Can’t they bump someone out of Europa qualification?

Yes, they can. Just not Spurs. Arsenal finished in 8th place, out of European qualification. However, if they beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final this coming Saturday, they’ll knock out the seventh-place Europa qualifiers (Wolves) and take their spot.

This sounds complicated. So Arsenal winning the cup doesn’t matter?

Oh buddy, you have no idea. And yes, Arsenal winning a trophy would not only result in obnoxious banter from the neighbors, it would still affect Spurs — the FA Cup winner gains automatic progression to the Europa League group stages. That means if Arsenal wins they bump Spurs down to the 2nd Qualification Round.

Does that mean extra matches?

Yup, and it’d be super annoying. Thankfully, those extra matches would come in mid-September and are one-legged series instead of two this year due to COVID, so Spurs would only need to play (and win) three matches to qualify for the group stages. And the teams Spurs would face would be, well, pretty bad. Still, come on you Chelsea.

The Interwebz are saying that Spurs can still be bumped if Arsenal win the FA Cup and Wolves win the Europa League. Is that true?

It is not. Spurs will be playing Europa League football no matter what happens in the Europa League final because they finished sixth, and that’s a guaranteed Europa qualification spot.

If the Arsenal-Wolves Cup-Winning Apocalypse scenario does happen (and it should be noted that there’s, like, a 5% chance or less of that actually happening), here’s how it would play out:

  • Wolves would qualify for the Champions League, making five English teams in that competition (Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Wolves).
  • Leicester City and Arsenal would qualify for the group stages of the Europa League.
  • Tottenham would drop down to the second qualification round of Europa League.
  • England would just have eight clubs in European competition.

The only thing Wolves winning the Europa League would do is add a fifth team to the Champions League at the expense of some sucky French team, probably. Which, frankly, would be kinda neat, because doesn’t everyone want to see Adama Traore in the Champions League over, like, Reims or Nice or something?

What is the European qualifier schedule for next year?

I’m glad you asked! Here are the important dates to know.

2020/21 UEFA Europa League Early Rounds

  • Preliminary round — 20 August (single-leg ties)
  • First qualifying round — 27 August (single-leg ties)
  • Second qualifying round — 17 September (single-leg ties)
  • Third qualifying round — 24 September (single-leg ties)
  • Play-offs — 1 October (single-leg ties)

Group stage

  • 22 and 29 October; 5 and 26 November; 3 and 10 December

I think I get it now. Thanks, Dustin!

You’re welcome, Internet Friend!