FC Barcelona begin their first ever Europa League campaign on Thursday 17 February at Camp Nou against Napoli (5.45pm CET).
And although it will never make up for Champions League elimination, it does present the team with a mouth-watering challenge. It’s a trophy that the club has never won before, despite a long association with the competition in its different guises.
From UEFA Cup to Europa League
The UEFA Cup was created in the 1971/72 season as a tournament for the ‘best of the rest’ teams that had not qualified for the European Cup or Cup Winners’ Cup as winners of their domestic league or cup titles. In 1999, the Cup Winners’ Cup was abolished and cup winners went into the UEFA Cup instead, which in 2008 was rebranded as the Europa League.
Although viewed as the lesser of the three European competitions, many regarded it as the hardest to actually win – mainly because it featured more than one team from each of the top football nations. Indeed, in eleven previous participations, Barça never managed to make the final, let alone lift the trophy.
Barça UEFA Cup record
1972-73: Round of 64 (lost to Porto)
1973-74: Round of 64 (lost to Nice)
1975-76: Semi-final (lost to Liverpool)
1976-77: Quarter-final (lost to Athletic Club)
1977-78: Semi-final (lost to PSV Eindhoven)
1980-81: Round of 32 (lost to FC Cologne)
1986-87: Quarter-final (lost to Dundee United)
1987-88: Round of 16 (lost to Bayer Leverkusen)
1995-96: Semi-final (lost to Bayern Munich)
2000-01: Semi-final (lost to Liverpool)
2003-04: Round of 16 (lost to Celtic).
So, the best Barça have ever done is reach the semi-finals, which they did on four occasions (1975/76, 1977/78, 1995/96 and 2000/01).
Xavi Hernández was on the pitch for both legs of Barça’s last appearance in the competition, a 1-0 defeat on aggregate to Glasgow Celtic.
Barça are unbeaten in their last eight UEFA Cup games at the Camp Nou (five wins and three draws). Bayern Munich were the last victors at the ground, in 1996.
Barça’s biggest ever win in the competition was 8-0 against Matador Púchov of Slovakia in 2003, one goal more than in their 7-0 pounding of Hapoel Be’er Sheva of Israel in 1995.
Curiously, this is only the second time Barça have played an Italian club in the competition. The only previous meeting was with Lazio in 1975, and Barça won 7-0 on aggregate.
This might be the first time that Barça played in the tournament since its name change, but for Napoli this will be a tournament record ninth appearance. The Italians have never won it as the Europa League, but did win the UEFA Cup in 1989, beating Stuttgart in the final.
The Fairs Cup
It is often claimed that the UEFA Cup was merely the Inter City Fairs Cup in another guise. However, the current tournament has never been recognised as UEFA as a continuation of the older competition.
The Fairs Cup was created in 1955 as competition to bring together the cities that held major trade and industrial fairs. This rather peculiar context for a football tournament was only open to teams from those cities, or in many cases Select XI teams representing various clubs. Barça was entered for the first edition, which was played from 1955 to 1958, as the ‘ambassador’ for the Catalan capital, and beat a London XI to claim the title.
Barça went on to win the competition on two further occasions, 1959/60 (beating Birmingham City in the final) and 1965/66 (beating Real Zaragoza).
In 1971/72 and after the competition was scrapped, a special game was played between the team with the most victories, Barça, and the most recent winners, Leeds United, to see who got to keep the trophy outright. The Camp Nou was the venue and Barça won 2-1.
Barça have won 135 official trophies over the years, including 26 for La Liga, 31 for the Copa del Rey, and most importantly, the five for the Champions League. But there have been plenty of other ones too.
But there is still no sign of the Europa League, or the UEFA Cup as it was before…
However, there are two members of the Barça squad who have won the UEFA Cup/Europa League before. Dani Alves did it twice with Sevilla in 2005/06 i 2006/07, and Luuk de Jong was also a winner with Sevilla in 2019/20. In fact, Luuk de Jong has scored an impressive 17 goals in the competition.
Aubameyang came close when Arsenal reached the final in 2019 but they lost to Chelsea, and Frenkie de Jong was also a runner-up for Ajax in 2017, who lost to Manchester United.
Other current FC Barcelona players with previous UEFA Cup/Europa League experience are:
Ter Stegen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
Neto (Fiorentina and Valencia)
Sergiño Dest (Ajax)
Samuel Umtiti (Olympique Lyon)
Ferran Torres (Valencia)
Adama Traoré (Wolves)
Memphis (PSV, Manchester United and Olympique Lyon)
Jordi Alba (Valencia).
So, there’s plenty to look forward to in this competition, and with teams like Sevilla, Porto, Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Olympiacos, Galatasaray, Zenit St Petersburg and West Ham and many more among the contenders it’s not going to be an easy challenge.
The first hurdle is Napoli. And hopefully not the last. There’s a lot to look forward to on this Europa League adventure.
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