The lineup for the inaugural quarterfinals illustrated that perfectly. England, France and Italy were represented — via Leicester City, Marseille and Roma — as well as the Czech Republic, Norway and Greece. The Orange squad had two contenders: Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven.
In an era when executives from the most powerful teams and the richest leagues are compulsively promoting the idea that the key to European football’s growth lies in ensuring as many encounters as possible between the continent’s superclubs, the Conference League offers a different paradigm.
It was in many ways a sort of return to European football, as it was in what might be considered the pre-modern era of the sport, before the advent of group stages and draws and the major leagues that automatically allowed entry for multiple teams in each League.
For fans who follow the Conference League, the relative obscurity of the teams involved has not diminished the tournament. It has strengthened it. Where the Champions League year after year feels like a treadmill between a handful of cities, its youngest sibling exudes an air of adventure. “It’s quite expensive, but the destinations are part of the attraction,” says Ravenhorst. What else, he said, would draw him to Boras or Lucerne or Gjilan?
However, the appeal goes deeper than just the ability to travel. “The level is high and the matches are between more or less equal opponents,” Kyriakos said. “The fans loved it. The games are all sold out.”
This has not only been the case in Greece. Even in England, generally cynical about any idea considered newfangled, Leicester City sold every ticket for PSV’s visit last week. PSV had done the same for Thursday’s return game, but lost 2-1 and was eliminated.
Parity has not necessarily come at the expense of quality. As Ravenhorst noted, Feyenoord’s group – made up of Slavia Prague, Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa – “felt like it could be in the Europa League.”