Who cares about the Europa League?

It was a match that will be remembered for Erik Lamela’s rabona goal and Harry Kane’s hat-trick. But where were the fans?

Turnstile operators at White Hart Lane had an easy night when Asteras Tripolis visited for a Europa League match. A European match alone doesn’t seem enough to drag Spurs supporters through the gate these days. Factors including the profile of the opposition and the price of tickets resulted in a stadium not even two-thirds full.

There was a time when Tottenham Hotspur was famous for nights of European glory.  The club had a proud record in Europe, with gripping matches and stirring victories.  White Hart Lane would be full and the atmosphere electric.

Spurs won the very first UEFA Cup in 1972, and again in 1984. The victory over Anderlecht in the two-legged 1984 final became part of Tottenham folklore.  After drawing 1-1 in Brussels, the return match in North London also finished 1-1.  The subsequent penalty shootout made keeper Tony Parks an instant legend thanks to two saves.

Despite a bright Gazza-inspired start to the 1990s, the club struggled to qualify for Europe until the mid-2000s.  It seemed any kind of European competition would do – remember the Intertoto Cup?

For Spurs supporters, European football has gone from a longing to an expectation.  Nothing less than qualification for Europe is demanded from an expensive multi-national squad – a far cry from times when the likes of Calderwood, Nethercott, Edinburgh and Vega graced the White Hart Lane turf.

The expansion of the UEFA Champions League devalued the UEFA Cup – now rebranded as the Europa League – so much so that even some Spurs supporters have come to consider the Europa League an inferior competition not worthy of their patronage.  

This is unjustified snobbery.  Tottenham Hotspur played in the Champions League a few seasons ago, but one swallow does not a summer make.*

Was it snobbery that led to a paltry crowd of just 21,428 attending last Thursday’s Europa League match at White Hart Lane?  It was a factor, certainly, but not the only one. 

Tottenham had drawn its first two group matches and needed a win to kick-start its European campaign.

Visitors Asteras Tripolis led Group C after a draw with Beşiktaş and a win away at Partizan Belgrade.  They brought a small group of supporters who sat in the lower levels of the south-west corner.

The opposition may not have been world famous – it’s the Greek side’s first time in the Europa League group stages – but that cannot fully explain the low attendance.

Adult tickets were priced at £25, an increase of 25% from last season.  It’s a price rise for a match in a competition that has lost some of its lustre against opposition that stirs no emotion for home supporters.

The crowd seemed lost, uncertain, like a small child wearing clothes two sizes too big.  White Hart Lane can hold over 36,000.  Empty blue seats were visible around the stadium. Season ticket holders had decided to stay at home.

What a game they missed.  Lamela’s first-half rabona goal will live on in YouTube perpetuity, while Kane scored and conceded goals at will.

Despite the moments of brilliance from Lamela and Kane, the atmosphere was subdued.  The crowd lacked the critical mass to sustain songs, and the few visiting supporters seldom raised their voices.

Clubs like Spurs who have heard the Sirens’ song – in this case, the Champions League theme – are haunted by it and will never be satisfied until they hear that sweet music again.

Perhaps clubs like Asteras Napolis do care about the Europa League. A second-tier club in what has become a second-tier competition.

In many European leagues, there is a great divide between rich clubs and the rest. The rich and powerful squabble over the league title and Champions League places, while smaller, less financially fortunate clubs battle relegation and hope for Europa League qualification.

Who cares about the Europa League?  At the group stage: very few.  It is a victim of the Champions League’s success.

*Yes, Spurs sort of did qualify for the Champions League a few years later but missed out thanks to Chelsea winning the whole thing, but that shouldn’t engender a sense of entitlement among Spurs supporters.

Words by Ian Kerr, Thin White Line Magazine.

THE TURF