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Tottenham Hotspur and the Europa Conference League: an explainer

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Tottenham Hotspur are in Europe’s third most prestigious club competition! Rejoice!

Albania v France - UEFA European Championship Qualifications
Albania’s Arena Kombetare, home to the 2022 Europa Conference League Final.
Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur qualified for Europe! That’s the good news. But it’s not the Champions League, nor is it the Europa League. Instead, Tottenham have limped into the Europa Conference League, a new third-tier European competition that will debut in the 2021-2022 season.

Whoof. I know, right? But by virtue of beating Leicester City in the final Premier League match Spurs managed to qualify for this tournament instead of Arsenal, so it probably behooves us to learn a bit about it before it all kicks off in August.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about the Conference League lately — what is it? How does it work? Is this just a bunch of farmers league clubs or what? So let’s take a look at this new competition and how Spurs fit into it. Odds are by the end of this article you might not feel so gross about it.

What the heck is the Europa Conference League anyway?

The Europa Conference League is the newest, and least prestigious, European club football tournament, and it has its debut next fall. For our American readers, think of it as the CBI Tournament of European competition — it’s not March Madness, nor is it the NIT. It’s the OTHER one that only gets shown on ESPN Ocho. It’s intended to give European competition to clubs from smaller leagues and smaller countries which might otherwise never make it to a European competition ever. In that sense it’s a good thing. It also includes a few larger clubs that have finished farther down the table in the major European leagues.

Before this season, European football consisted of two major competitions:

  1. The Champions League, intended for the biggest and best European clubs, who qualify by finishing either in or near the tops of their domestic leagues, or through a series of qualification stages held at the beginning of the club seasons
  2. The Europa League, a secondary competition just underneath the Champions League. Clubs in the Europea League generally finished lower in their domestic leagues, or are champions of smaller continental European competitions; there is a similar series of qualification rounds for this tournament (as Spurs well know after this past season, which required three rounds of home and away qualification wins before they qualified for the group stages). The winner of the Europa League automatically qualifies for next year’s Champions League.

UEFA decided to streamline European competition for the next few seasons, adding the Conference League below the existing Europa League. They did this by reducing the size of the Europa League from 48 teams to 32, creating a set of three, equal sized competitions of 32 teams, rather than an unbalanced set of two.

How does a club qualify for the Conference League?

It depends on which league you’re playing for. Places in the Conference League are granted to countries based on their UEFA Country Coefficients:

  • Nations ranked 1 to 5 (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France) will have one team;
  • Nations ranked 6 to 15 will have two teams;
  • Nations ranked 16 to 50 will have three teams;
  • Nations ranked 51 to 55 will have two teams;
  • The Liechtenstein Football Cup winner (since Liechtenstein does not have a domestic league)

England’s representation in the Conference League is given to the winner of the League Cup competition, but should the EFL Cup winner qualify for a higher European league, the place reverts to the sixth place finisher in the Premier League. Manchester City won the League Cup this year (siiiiiiiiiiigh) and both Leicester City and West Ham qualified for the Europa League by finishing fifth and sixth place. Leicester also won the FA Cup, which means the Europa Conference place falls to the seventh place team in the league — Tottenham Hotspur. (COYS!)

How does the competition work?

Unlike the Europa League, there are no automatic qualifiers to the Conference League group stages — all teams will have to play at least one home and away series before then. There will be three qualification rounds for lower-rated teams, and a play-off round. The 16 winners of the play-off round will join the 16 losers of the Europa League play-off round to form the 32 teams in the competition. The clubs will be split into eight groups of four teams each with pots based on coefficients, with each team playing their group stage opponents home and away. Spurs are almost guaranteed to be in Pot 1, meaning they won’t have to face any of the even mildly scary teams until later in the knock-out rounds.

Even though there are no auto qualifiers, it’s not all Dog & Duck FC clubs. There are a few teams, mostly from the larger leagues, that have automatically qualified for the Play-Off Round — Tottenham Hotspur, Villarreal, Union Berlin, Roma (yes, Jose Mourinho’s new club), and Rennes. But yes, there are also a TON of smaller clubs that you’ve probably never heard of that will have to progress through the three qualification rounds to reach the Play-Off Round, and then the Group Stage. You can see a list of those clubs on the Conference League’s Wikipedia page.

And after that?

That’s where things get a little different from past tournaments. We’ve posted this once before, but it’s worth revisiting again.

The teams that finish at the tops of their groups will automatically advance to the Round of 16, where they will face the winners of the second placed teams and the third placed teams from the Europa League. From there the tournament will continue until there is one winner.

What does the winner of the Conference League win?

A sexy new trophy and automatic qualification to the group stages of the Europa League next season! Wheeee!

Doesn’t seem like it’s worth it for a team like Spurs.

No, it’s not glamorous at all. But it’s also not horrible, nor will it be necessarily a walk in the park for a club like Spurs. Barring a Play-Off Round collapse, Tottenham should have a group stage against a bunch of middling continental teams, but will face some slightly tougher competition with the Europa League drop-outs fall in during the knock-out rounds.

And honestly, if you’re the kind of fan who loves learning about small clubs in random parts of Europe that normally don’t get a lot of attention, this should be a fun tournament for you. Ever wanted to learn about clubs like FC Honka (Finnish first division), Dynamo Brest (Belarusian Premier League) or Shakhter Karagandy (Kazakhstan Premier League)? You might get your chance. Spurs will travel to tiny stadiums in strange lands. We might even get a rematch against our old friends Lokomotiv Plovdiv! I actually think it could be a LOT of fun.

Also, there will be a small amount of money, and some money >>> no money.

Depending on the new manager, this could also be an excellent opportunity to provide European minutes to players on the fringe of the first team, or to promising academy graduates. A home match against Vojvodina would be an excellent opportunity for players like Dane Scarlett, Nile John, and Troy Parrott to get some European competition. I would expect (or rather hope) that we won’t see the likes of Son Heung-Min playing in this competition until the later rounds.

Jesus. Will this thing even be on TV?

Remarkably, yes! The tournament will be televised on CBS networks (likely Paramount+) and TUDN (Spanish language) in the USA. I also understand that BT Sport will carry the Conference League along with the Europa League in the UK.

OK, fine, when does this whole thing start?

Qualification rounds will start in early July, but the Play-Off Round, where Spurs start, takes place August 9 and 16. The final is May 15, 2022 in the 22,000-seat Arena Kombëtare in scenic Tirana, Albania.