It’s time for summer Geography Camp, also known as the Europa League qualifying rounds.
Spent a summer backpacking around Europe when you were in college? Think you know the continent? The fixtures list will show you that you know nothing of the old world, friend.
It’s an annual mystery tour of teams you’ve never heard of, from cities that sound like a bunch of made-up random consonants, to obscure countries you vaguely remember seeing on a map one time. And it’s fantastic.
Alashkert FC, anyone? How about Shakhtyor Soligorsk? Progres Niederkorn? West Ham United?
FC Differdange 03 versus Bala Town. That’s not only a tie between the prides of Luxembourg and the Welsh Premier League. Poetry.
FK Atlantas Klaipėda (Lithuania) vs. PFC Beroe Stara Zagora (Bulgaria). FK Spartaks Jūrmala (Latvia) vs. FK Budućnost Podgorica (Montenegro). University College Dublin AFC (Ireland) vs. F91 Dudelange (Luxembourg). SJK Seinäjoki (Finland) v FH Hafnarfjördur (Iceland). These are all real matchups that exist in our world.
I could go on. And on, because this was, according to UEFA, the largest Europa League draw ever, with 102 clubs and another 15 coming in at the second round stage. Way to react to the annual claims that the tournament is too bloated, guys.
On the other hand, there’s something beautiful about bringing FC Ordabasy Shymkent (Kazakhstan) to a wider audience. (OK, not very wide. I mean, do you even remember who reached last season’s semifinals?)
There are killjoys who say this is precisely why the Europa League is the runty sibling of the Champions League: too many teams, starting too soon. The first qualifying round, first leg matches take place on July 2, when most serious clubs are getting ready to head off on preseason tours to Asia or North America, not having to pick a mixture of youth and reserves for a match against Estonia’s third-best team to be played in front of 250 people.
But try telling that to KF Shkëndija (Macedonia).