The Conference League Is the Best European Tournament You’re Not Watching

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The lineup for the inaugural quarterfinals illustrates that perfectly. England, France and Italy are represented — through Leicester City, Marseille and Roma — but so too are the Czech Republic, Norway and Greece. The Dutch have two contenders: Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven.

In an era when executives from the most powerful teams and the wealthiest leagues compulsively promote the idea that the key to European soccer’s growth lies in ensuring as many meetings as possible between the continent’s superclubs, the Conference League offers a different paradigm.

It has, in many ways, been something of a throwback to European soccer as it was in what might be thought of as the sport’s premodern era, before the advent of group stages and seeded draws and the major leagues’ being granted automatic entry for multiple teams in each competition.

To the fans who are following the Conference League, the relative unfamiliarity of the teams involved has not diminished the tournament. It has enhanced it. Where the Champions League feels like a treadmill running between a handful of cities, year after year, its youngest sibling has an air of adventure. “It is quite expensive, but the destinations are part of the attraction,” Ravenhorst said. What else, he said, would draw him to Boras or Lucerne or Gjilan?

The appeal, though, runs deeper than just the opportunity for travel. “The level is high, and the games are between opponents who are more or less equal,” Kyriakos said. “The fans have loved it. The games have all been sold out.”

That has not just been the case in Greece; even in England, generally cynical about any idea perceived to be newfangled, Leicester City sold every single ticket for the visit of PSV last week. PSV had already done the same for Thursday’s return match.

That parity has not necessarily come at the expense of quality. As Ravenhorst pointed out, Feyenoord’s group — consisting of Slavia Prague, Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa — “felt like it could be in the Europa League.”