Disinteresting, politically charged Europa League season ends in fitting fashion

Chelsea players celebrate Eden Hazard's first goal on Wednesday in the Europa League final, which was jarring and fitting in equal measure. (Getty)
Chelsea players celebrate Eden Hazard's first goal on Wednesday in the Europa League final, which was jarring and fitting in equal measure. (Getty)

If the Europa League were a sentient being, rather than a beleaguered soccer tournament, you would feel sort of bad for it.

It’s been kicked around a lot. But it’s probably never looked more battered and bruised than on Wednesday, when its final between fellow Londoners Chelsea and Arsenal took place in… Baku, Azerbaijan.

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The game itself was bizarre. The first half was an abomination, a mirthless slog that felt like preseason, with neither team sharp or particularly eager, only instead of fitness and a few starting jobs, one of the most famous trophies in the world was on the line. The second half was fun and produced five goals.

Chelsea won 4-1 to end its season on a high note. Olivier Giroud, the former Arsenal striker, scored with a nice diving header past Petr Cech, the former Chelsea goalkeeper, just after halftime.

On the hour mark, Pedro made it 2-0 after being teed up by Eden Hazard. And then Giroud was bundled over by Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the penalty area, with Hazard coolly converting the penalty.

Alex Iwobi, just after coming on as a substitute, briefly hinted at an Arsenal comeback with a screaming volley.

But Hazard quickly restored the three-goal lead to collect a brace in what’s been reported to be his last Chelsea game before joining Real Madrid.

A jarring match was an appropriate outcome for this whole event.

Presently, the Europa League, known as the UEFA Cup from 1971 through 2009, is in the midst of something of an existential crisis. Or at least it would be, if anybody cared enough about it to fret over its lot. Because the Europa League, ostensibly the second-highest prize in European soccer, has never risen above its status as second-class citizen.

Worse, it's become a political pawn. Aleksander Ceferin, the Slovenian president of UEFA, understands very well the central fact of life as a successful soccercrat. The trick to survival is to retain a broad base of votes, and the way to do that is to pander to traditionally underappreciated regions and make them feel important. By giving them a European final, for instance.

On its face, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding the footprint of the key games in European competition. UEFA’s mandate, after all, is to grow the game. But practically, this final in Baku was a disaster. Less than 11 percent of the 68,000 tickets were allocated to Chelsea and Arsenal fans, and so few of them were bought that the clubs returned a sizable share of their allotments, priced out of the event by distance and price-gouging. And it was evident in the atmosphere, or lack thereof, in the half-empty Olympic Stadium – which has never hosted an Olympics.

Meanwhile, if more English fans had been interested in traveling more than 5,000 miles, the airport in Baku is apparently too small to actually handle the volume of people typically drawn to a major soccer final. And all of that is to say nothing of Azerbaijan’s terrible human rights record. Oh, and then there’s Arsenal having to leave midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan home, because as an Armenian, his safety in the host nation couldn’t be safeguarded.

It’s sort of telling that Wednesday’s final was the first Europa League game all season aired on English-language broadcast TV in the United States. And you can’t really blame TNT, UEFA’s American broadcast partner, in its first year as the rights holder to the Champions League and its ugly stepbrother. But UEFA also didn’t insist on a broadcaster showing both tournaments regularly, a concession it could have easily bargained for – mandatory airings are common in these kinds of contracts.

The studio panel stateside tried to build buzz about this game as a “grudge match” between two familiar Premier League rivals, but that characterization revealed that the affair was somewhat uninteresting on its own merits as a supposedly major European final. And outside of TNT’s control, the unusual camera angle and the enormous space separating the field from the stands was widely mocked on social media.

Alas, the Europa League has devolved into a glorified qualifying tournament to the Champions League, awarding a berth for next season to the winner. That carrot was dangled a few years ago, in a desperate act to get the big clubs to care about it more.

The truth is that they still don’t, not taking it terribly seriously until their domestic league seasons have gone sufficiently awry that their only path to making it back to the tournament they actually do want to be in runs through the final of the Europa League.

Winning the thing might not even save embattled Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri’s job, in spite of guiding a troubled team to third place in the Premier League and this prize. Because there’s really no added glory in winning it, other than cluttering up the trophy room some more. His team is already in the Champions League next year, after all.

That’s just as true for Arsenal, which missed out on the fourth spot in England by a single point. Would a win on Wednesday have salvaged its season? Probably not, but it would have made next season more appealing. Still, a win would have added to the club’s reputation of only winning unimportant trophies in the last decade and a half.

And no redemption is in sight for the Europa League itself. In 2021, UEFA plans to add a third European tournament, slotted into a lower tier. To please yet more clubs and member nations. But that will only serve to devalue this existing tournament further. It’s one thing being Europe’s second champion. It’s another still to be one of three.

Chelsea is one of those two champions this season.

Ho-hum.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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