All you need to know about the new Europa Conference League and what it means for the Irish League teams
- Europa League will now only be a possibility for the Dankse Bank Premiership champions
- A repeat of Linfield's run to the Europa League play-offs would guarantee a group stage spot
- As many as 34 of UEFA's 55 member nations will be represented in the group stage of European football
UEFA has rubber-stamped the name of its new club competition: the Europa Conference League. Other than it's rather less than grandiose title, what do we know about it and what does it mean for the Irish League?
Here's a quick guide:
What is the UEFA Europa Conference League?
The competition is basically a third-tier European club tournament, running behind the Champions League and the Europa League. There will be 32 teams taking part in the group stage and, like the other two competitions, the top two teams in each group of four make it through to the knock-out rounds.
It's not as simple as those teams making up the last 16, however. The group runners-up will face an additional knock-out round - basically a round of 32 - against the teams who finish third in their Europa League groups and drop down to the Conference League. From then on, it's the usual European formula of two-legged knock-out ties leading to a final at a pre-determined venue.
The matches will be played on Thursday evenings, kicking off at 5.45pm or 8pm.
When does the UEFA Europa Conference League begin?
The competition is scheduled to get under way in the 2021/22 season, so the Irish League will get back its fourth European place just in time for the big kick-off of the new-look European schedule.
What's the point of it?
UEFA's stated aim is to increase the number of member associations represented in the group stage of European competition. UEFA say the competition means at least 34 of the 55 member nations will be represented in the group stages, as opposed to the current number of 26.
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So it's made for nations exactly like Northern Ireland, who have never sent a club into the group stage of either the Champions League or the Europa League. Linfield's run to the Europa League play-off this summer was the closest an Irish League side has come.
In theory, the new competition should make their task easier.
"This competition was borne out of ongoing dialogue with clubs through the European Club Association," said President Aleksander Čeferin.
"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."
Which teams will play in the Europa Conference League?
There will be teams from all 55 of UEFA's member nations in qualifying section of the tournament. The top five nations in the coefficient ranking will all have one team each entering the Play-Off round, including England who seem set to send their League Cup winners. Nations ranked 6th to 15th will all have two teams going straight into the qualifying rounds, with nations ranked 16th to 51st (bar Liechtenstein) all sending three teams. The nations from 52nd to 54th will send two teams and the bottom nation only one.
What does it mean for the Irish League?
The Irish League champions will, from 2021 onwards, be the only team to have the opportunity to play in the Europa League.
From 2021 onwards, the Irish League clubs' European opportunities will be as follows:
Danske Bank Premiership champions: The Irish League champions will enter the first qualifying round of the Champions League. If they are knocked out in that round, they will drop directly into the UEFA Conference League second qualifying round (Champions path). But, if they manage to make it through at least one round in the Champions League, they will guarantee themselves three rounds of European football. That's because they will first drop into the Europa League qualifying rounds. If they then fail to make it into the group stage, they will drop into the Europa Conference League. If a team can repeat Linfield's run to the Europa League Play-off, that would be enough to guarantee group stage football as the losers of the Europa League play-offs go directly into the Conference League groups.
Other Irish League teams: Unless Northern Ireland manage to rocket their way into the top 30 in the UEFA coefficient rankings (currently ranked 48th), the other three European qualifiers must enter the Europa Conference League in the first qualifying round, facing four knock-out ties until the group stage.
What's the prize money for the new competition?
As we all, chiefly Linfield and Crusaders, now know, the European competitions carry vast sums of prize-money. The amount of Euros on offer for the new tournament is yet to be announced but if the current financial standards are anything to judge by, it will be very significant in Irish League terms. Watch this space.
Belfast Telegraph Digital