Yesterday the draw for the early rounds of the Champions and Europa League qualifiers was made in Nyon, Switzerland. For the larger European leagues this draw, and indeed the early qualifying rounds, slip away unnoticed in the middle of a summer of grandiose transfer acquisitions and international tournaments. But for smaller European leagues the qualifiers are actually the height of their club calendar, indeed for many countries it is the only time of the year when they can dream of something greater than the dreariness and corruption of their own domestic leagues.
But the qualifiers are exciting for other reasons. They remind the cynical and hardened football observer of the sheer diversity of the game on the European continent and also give important geographical lessons. When I was a child I remember looking in wonder at newspapers with the scores of European games – where were these teams from? What stories lay behind the names? Now in the latter stages of European tournaments everything is familiar and repetitive, and very little is new. In the European club qualifiers this freshness remains. When draws are made, journalists and fans frantically scramble for information on opponents who hardly anyone knew existed only hours previously. This lack of knowledge is actually wonderful – it means a lack of pre-conceived ideas and allows the observer to absorb information.
The Polish club draws yesterday illustrate this point. Within the space of a couple of hours Polish fans found out that Śląsk Wrocław’s Europa League opponents NK Celje are the one side who have played every season in the Slovenian top flight since independence in 1991 and that Lech Poznań’s Champions League opponents FK Sarajevo are owned by the renowned (some might say unhinged) maverick Vincent Tan. These are all things I could not have possibly have known before the draw took place. To some these are unimportant factoids but they are pleasant morsels of information which only exist outside of the staid footballing mainstream.
Indeed the early rounds of European club qualifiers remind me of sections of James Montague’s excellent book thirty-one nil written about the qualifying process for the 2014 Brazilian World Cup. For many of the players taking part in the games it is their yearly chance at being part of something beautiful and bigger than the drudgery of their typical footballing existence. One day someone will write a book about the European club qualifying process too – a time when dreams, hopes and magic are in the air – but for the moment we can only wait to see what lies in store in the next couple of months – or maybe just try to find a stream for Macedonia’s FK Renova as they take on Moldova’s mighty FC Dacia Chișinău.