The view that it may be the largest annual football tournament in the world is just one reason for the UEFA Europa League to catch the attention of clubs, players and supporters when the new competition has its opening night on Thursday 17 September.
Passing the baton
The baton that UEFA picked up in launching the UEFA Cup back in season 1971/72 now passes to the UEFA Europa League, which was born thanks to a UEFA Executive Committee decision in Bordeaux last autumn.
Speaking about the UEFA Europa League in his address at the group-stage draw in Monaco last month, UEFA President Michel Platini said: "A new season and a new competition lie ahead. The UEFA Cup has been replaced by the UEFA Europa League. And more than just a change of name, we also have a new, clearer, more traditional and more coherent format, and greater centralisation of television rights, which will increase the financial rewards for clubs and make the competition more attractive."
Forty-eight pioneer clubs will kick off the competition proper, making up 12 groups of four teams who will meet over six matchdays between September and December in a double round-robin format. Another 136 clubs have participated in one of the three qualifying rounds or in last month's play-offs. Such a large field will not only make for a more open contest but also lend it a truly international flavour.
"The best thing about the new UEFA Europa League is its sheer size and scale," David Taylor, UEFA's General Secretary, told uefa.com in a chat session before the group-stage draw. "It may well be the largest annual football tournament in the world. We have made improvements to the format of the competition from the old UEFA Cup and in particular to the group stage of the UEFA Europa League – we think it will be a fairer competition with home and away matches like the UEFA Champions League."
Three home and three away games
Where, in the UEFA Cup, clubs played two home games and two away during the course of a five-team group, now they have a full group format of playing three matches home and three away. The best two teams from each section qualify for the round of 32, where the 24 remaining contenders are joined by the eight third-placed clubs from the UEFA Champions League groups. The action then progresses into the round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the final in Hamburg on 12 May 2010.
Starting on Matchday 1, the road to Hamburg requires 15 stops, final included. Whatever a competing team's ultimate destination, the journey will be beneficial to that club, its players and supporters according to Mr Taylor. "Clubs compete the whole season in their domestic league to win prizes and one of those prizes is the possibility to compete in Europe," he said. "This adds spice to the domestic league and then also to European competitions. It's a great opportunity for players to compete against players from other cultures and many fans are excited by the prospect of playing other teams in other countries.
"In terms of finances, this season the UEFA Europa League teams are gaining substantial financial reward. If I am a supporter or player, to compete in European competition is an unforgettable experience."
Additional assistant referees
The competition will also be notable for the experiment with two additional assistant referees, whereby all 144 group games will be officiated by six match officials. In a trial endorsed by the International Football Association Board, the referee, two assistant referees and fourth official will be supplemented by two additional assistant referees positioned alongside either goal.
Back to the future
The UEFA Cup had its origins in Europe's oldest international club competition, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was established in 1955. Now it has become the UEFA Europa League, a new European football adventure begins for every team involved.