UEFA president full of praise for Conference League debut

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

By LLAZAR SEMINI

Associated Press

TIRANA, Albania (AP) The Conference League tournament was designed to give smaller teams a chance to play continental soccer deeper into the European season.

It worked for much of the inaugural competition, but the bigger teams took over by the semifinals.

The first final will be between Dutch club Feyenoord and Italian team Roma in the Albanian capital of Tirana. The match will be played at the 20,000-capacity National Stadium, a relatively small venue for such big clubs.

"We didn't expect such a significant interest in the UEFA Conference League in 2020 when we decided on the final host. It was a new competition, so it was reasonable to start with the stadiums with smaller capacities," UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in an email interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "But the interest expressed in this final is fantastic, and I am delighted to see the fans' reaction to this new tournament."

Tens of thousands of fans have made their way to Albania for the match. Authorities in the country have declared Wednesday a public holiday and closed the streets downtown to create a festive atmosphere.

Feyenoord and Roma both have large fan bases and many are expected to be in Tirana for the match despite each club being allocated only 4,000 tickets.

There has already been some fan trouble, however. Deputy head of police Albert Dervishi said 48 Italian fans and 12 Dutch supporters have been detained and 80 fans were deported back to Italy after violence in the city on Tuesday night.

Next season's final is scheduled to be played at the Eden Arena in Prague, a stadium with an even smaller capacity. Clubs who have already qualified to enter next season's edition include West Ham, Cologne and Fiorentina.

"If this trend continues, we might need to think about going to bigger stadiums in the future," Ceferin said. "And I think the success of the first edition will make many other nations consider a bid for the subsequent editions."

Although the semifinals of the Conference League included teams from some of the top soccer countries in Europe, the idea of giving smaller clubs more chances was evident through the quarterfinals. Greek club PAOK Thessaloniki, Norwegian team Bodo/Glimt and Czech team Slavia Prague all reached that latter stage.

"The idea behind the UEFA Conference League is to have more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages. And the formula proved to be a successful one," Ceferin said. "We had many teams making their European debut this season, with 12 national associations represented in the round of 16."

The Conference League will still be the third most important tournament on the UEFA calendar behind the Champions League and the Europa League, but its initial success is encouraging for Ceferin.

"Many so-called football experts tried to convince us that such a competition would never be equally important and appealing as the other two competitions. And now, in the final, you have two teams that, in terms of quality, could easily play in the UEFA Champions League," Ceferin said. "The inauguration season played out beyond expectations."

Follow Llazar Semini at https://twitter.com/lsemini

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Updated May 25, 2022

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