The UEFA Europa League has received a major endorsement from football fans across the continent after the new competition registered a marked increase in attendances compared with the same knockout stage of the UEFA Cup last season.
Attendances figures were up by an average of more than 5,000 per game this week as the UEFA Europa League entered its knockout phase – the first-leg matches in the round of 32 were watched by an average of 26,953 spectators, compared with 21,512 in the last season of the UEFA Cup.
Where in that 2008/09 campaign the biggest first-leg crowd was the 38,038 recorded at Aston Villa FC's game against PFC CSKA Moskva, the UEFA Europa League round of 32 has already attracted gates exceeding 40,000 at three venues.
The turnstiles were busiest for the Panathinaikos FC v AS Roma match as some 54,274 fans were treated to a 3-2 victory for the home team in Athens. The AFC Ajax against Juventus game drew a 51,676 crowd, while 40,450 watched Liverpool FC against FC Unirea Urziceni. The fixtures at Athletic Club and Hamburger SV also saw spectator numbers well in excess of 30,000.
As a result of this boom, the figure showing the overall percentage of the 16 stadiums' capacity that was filled for the first-leg matches, has also climbed – from 66.8% last year to 68.8%. The jump in attendances represents an emphatic thumbs-up from Europe's football followers as well as a source of encouragement to the competition organisers.
The UEFA Europa League was launched this season as a successor to the UEFA Cup, bringing with it a truly international flavour – while 48 pioneer clubs kicked off the competition proper, or group stage, another 136 sides had participated either in one of the three qualifying rounds or in the play-offs that followed.
Now, at the business end of the competition, the UEFA Europa League has a rich field of 32 teams which includes seven former winners of the European Champion Clubs' Cup in AFC Ajax, Juventus, Liverpool FC, Olympique de Marseille, Hamburg, PSV Eindhoven and SL Benfica. The action continues next week when the second-leg matches take place in football-mad cities such as Istanbul, Lisbon and Rome, with a place in the 12 May final at the Hamburg Arena being the ultimate goal.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk triumphed in the concluding edition of the UEFA Cup last year, the final winners of a competition which dated back to the 1971/72 season. The UEFA Europa League has a rich inheritance and, to judge from the reaction of the fans this week, it is maintaining – updating even – this proud legacy.