While the Champions League, or the old European Cup, has long been seen as the pinnacle of footballing achievement, for years the UEFA Cup – now the Europa League – was seen as a fair and worthy second prize. While the tournament has lost some of the reverence, it once held due to the Champions League taking in more clubs from the top nations (the Champions used to qualify themselves in the past) it’s still a trophy that many people hold with high regard.
It was introduced in the 1970-71 season when it replaced the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was more or less the same trophy. It held such importance, though, that UEFA took it over and began to rebrand the tournament to be for the ‘other’ top teams that failed to win their league.
The first ever final of the tournament was played between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur of England when Spurs won to lift the trophy. Liverpool won the cup in 1973, defeating Borussia Monchengladbach; who themselves went on to lift the cup in 1975 and 1979. Liverpool also won the tournament by beating Club Brugge in the final in 1976, capping off an incredible era for the club.
The 1980s saw a change, with the likes of Real Madrid, Anderlecht, and IFK Goteborg being regular names in the final of the tournament. Goteborg won two, in 1982 and 1987, while Anderlecht got two finals on the spin, losing one and winning the other. The end of the 1980s saw the Italians begin to take it seriously, though, with the likes of Napoli, Torino, Juventus, and Inter reaching the final in the late 80s and 90s. 1995 seen Parma reach an all-Italian final, to signify a period of massive European dominance for the Italian league.
The 2000s saw a return to form for other countries, though, when England’s Liverpool beat Alaves of Spain in the final 5-4. Glasgow Celtic of Scotland reached a landmark final in 2003-03 when they lost to Jose Mourinho’ Porto side in a stunning final. 2004 saw the beginning of the Spanish dominance, with Valencia winning it in 2004 followed by Sevilla going back-to-back, defeating Spanish opponents Espanyol in the final.
In the mid-00s, the Eastern European contingent began to impress with CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk all lifting the title. Donetsk won it in 2009 and became the winners of the last-ever UEFA Cup before it was re-branded to the Europa League.
Since then, Sevilla has won three titles in a row, and Atletico Madrid lifted the trophy twice. Chelsea lifted the title to win it the year after their first Champions League win, followed by Liverpool reaching the final in 2016 and Manchester United winning the trophy in 2017, defeating a resurgent Ajax with relative ease.
While it might not hold the same prestige as its ‘big brother’, the UEFA Cup and the Europa League has been the highlight in the histories of some of the most important clubs in the world.