Planes, Trains and TV Deals

The European club season has ended, with FC Barcelona defeating Juventus 3-1 on June 6 in Berlin. Barcelona will spend late July in the United States contesting the International Champions Cup, while Juventus is slated to gallavant around the European continent at the same time.

By then, the next club season will have already begun. Because soccer never sleeps. On July 2, Europa League qualifiers will begin; before even that, on June 30, two days after Barcelona plays Chelsea in Landover, Maryland, will be the start of Champions League qualifiers. Perhaps 48 hours after Barcelona and Chelsea play a lucrative exhibition in front of tens of thousands, with millions more watching at home, eight clubs from Europe’s soccer backwaters will play one of their most important matches of the year in front of crowds that might number in the hundreds, matches that will be lucky to be televised at all.

But the Champions League is still the Champions League. The Europa League, as the second-choice competition, is ripe for ridicule, especially from the places that typically concentrate on Champions League glory. Take this article from the Soccer Gods mocking the obscuity of many of the Europa League qualifiers.

And sure. None of these clubs from the opening rounds are liable to have much chance against the big guns who are currently off packing for lucrative friendlies in all corners of the globe. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth knowing.

Among the more famous of the 102 clubs taking part in Europa’s round 1 qualifiers are England’s West Ham United, Scotland’s Aberdeen, Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem and Norway’s Rosenborg. But that’s cheating, really.

Let’s take one of the other matchups, where Wales’ Airbus UK Broughton faces Croatia’s NK Lokomotiva. NK Lokomotiva is a former farm club of Dinamo Zagreb, back when they were in the fourth tier. From 2007-09, though, they won promotion three straight years, and thus ran into a dilemma: farm teams can’t be in the same tier as their parent club. So they broke off the connection (although they and Dinamo still maintain good relations and still trade players between each other.) Usually, being a larger club’s farm team ends up getting a club nothing but ignominy. Who’s comfortable knowing the club you’ve given years of your life to is now nothing more than some other, larger club’s plaything? It’s not fun. Ask Chivas USA. Being a feeder club isn’t completely the greatest either, but it’s a heck of a lot more manageable: some fairly notable clubs are feeders for even more notable clubs. The LA Galaxy are a feeder for Chelsea. Sporting Lisbon is a feeder for Manchester City. Either way, when you’re a farm club, winning your way to the point where you don’t have to be a farm club anymore is not a notion you generally seriously entertain.

And certainly, the crowds for Lokomotiva still are puny, less than half of Dinamo’s last season. And that was the first season in six in the top flight where they even cracked 1,000 fans per home date. Despite success, they are still a feeder and the club of Dinamo’s second choices.

But get that feeder team into continental competition right alongside Champions League-bound Dinamo (who faces Fola Esch of Luxembourg when they kick off in qualifying round 2)? Now things could get interesting. In essence, Dinamo has qualified two clubs for Europe.

Not that this is particularly hard to do anymore for Dinamo. Their most recent title makes it ten in a row. It’s long since stopped being funny for the rest of Croatia. It wasn’t funny anymore when it was three in a row. Even some Dinamo fans are tired of it. You’d think the league’s dominant team would also be the best supported, but the by-far highest attendance in recent years has been rival Hadjuk Split, figured as the club that has the best chance of knocking Dinamo off their perch. Dinamo’s attendance ranked fourth last season.

Their opposition, Airbus UK Broughton, which will be known as AUK Broughton when they line up against Lokomotiva due to a UEFA rule prohibiting names of clubs containing non-official sponsors, is a little more fly-by-night. Literally. Founded in 1946, right after World War 2- and as planes began to become more commercial in their use- the club was founded as a works team; that is, a club created explicitly by a particular company, and often has its roster filled exclusively by employees of that company. In this case, the company is the aerospace factory sitting next to the stadium, then owned by Vickers-Armstrong; obviously, it’s now owned by Airbus. The thing about a works team, though, is that the employees-only talent pool limits how far the club can rise, so if a works team wants to get serious, they have to open things up to the pros. Other clubs going this route- among many, many others- are Bayer Leverkusen (they of Bayer), PSV Eindhoven (they of Philips), VFL Wolfsburg (they of Volkswagen), Yokohama F. Marinos (formerly Nissan FC), and Arsenal (they of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, southeast London).

Airbus UK Broughton went that way as well,  faces an issue that the other works teams don’t: their stadium, because it’s next to an aerospace factory, is also next to an airport, as this pic will show. The aerospace gizmos and whatsits tend to need a place to go fwoosh into the sky, after all. That means the stadium, known as- what else- The Airfield– can’t be built up very much due to being right under planes taking off and landing. Which means it can’t ever hope to meet UEFA standards for hosting continental competition, which means when Broughton hosts Lokomotiv, it will be done at Nantporth, home of Bangor City, instead.

They do, however, have one important feature at The Airfield. Because of those planes overhead, you can’t have anything built too high. Floodlights, though, need to be built high so they can properly illuminate the pitch. The solution Broughton came up with was to make the floodlights retractable, able to be folded up after games and laid upon the brackets seen here.

Both clubs have been to Europe before recently, but are still relatively new to the stage. Broughton has seen the past two Europa League qualifiers, but has gone down in the first round both times; 1-1 on away goals to Latvia’s FK Ventspils in 2013-14 and 3-2 on aggregate to Norway’s FK Haugesund one year ago. Lokomotiva entered in the second qualifying round of the 2013-14 Europa League, where Belarus’ Dinamo Minsk was waiting for them; Minsk won 4-4 on away goals. Either way, someone will be advancing in continental competition for the first time.

This is just one pairing in the round. Go Ahead Eagles of the Netherlands is in Europe for the first time since 1965, and offered one lucky fan a free trip to Hungary to see their pairing against Ferencvaros. After Ferencvaros’ fans’ racist behavior forced the Hungarian leg to be played behind closed doors, Go Ahead Eagles made the fan and his wife members of the board so they could attend as club officials. Macedonia’s FK Shkendija (drawn against Aberdeen) was founded in 1979 by part of Yugoslavia’s Albanian community, and forcibly disbanded by the government two seasons later for fear it would start a nationalist movement, not to be re-established until Macedonia gained independence. The supporters sing Albania’s national anthem every match. Europa FC (drawn against Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava) contains the first player from the Gibraltar league to appear in a major international tournament, that being Charly, a midfielder from Equatorial Guinea’s 2015 Africa Cup of Nations squad. There are plenty of stories out there. You don’t get to a continental stage, especially in European soccer, without at least a couple good war stories.

You just have to care enough to go out and listen to them.

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