Mihir Bose: Europa League is another concept that the English have been slow to grasp

The British have a great capacity to invent new sports. But, having got the world playing, they are very hostile to any change to the sports they have invented.

The British genius for sports has been well documented. The country may not be a sporting super-power but nearly all modern sports were either invented in this country or their laws codified here.

The problem arises when the sports the British have invented are changed, particularly if the changes are proposed by foreigners.

The British explode with a mixture of anger and scorn, refusing to see why the change may be necessary, or how it could possibly improve the product they have invented.

Cricket provides the most notable examples of this British sporting contradiction. The cricket World Cup was invented here, over a casual conversation during a Headingley Test between cricket administrators and the Prudential.

In those days back in the 70s that was how sponsorship deals were born. The first three World Cups were held here. The third one in 1983, saw the Indians, perhaps to their own surprise, win it and the competition changed. The next one was held in the sub continent. It changed from a 60 over competition to a 50 over one, shortened because of amount of daylight available in the subcontinent. And it was the Indians, borrowing ideas from Kerry Packer and his cricket circus, who really made the 50 over game international.

The Indians have done the same in an even more dramatic form with Twenty20, another great English invention. Indeed the Indian take-over of Twenty20 could well revolutionise the entire game of cricket.

Of course the French did a similar thing with the football World Cup. The British shunned this French initiative back in the 1920s. They did not take part in the first three World Cups and, in the process, allowed the French and the continentals to take charge of what has developed into the greatest single sporting competition in the world.

A very similar thing happened after the war when a couple of French journalists – who says we journalists never have good ideas? – came up with the concept of the European Cup. The English treated it as one of those daft continental plans that would never work, did not take part in the early years and, since then, have often had to play catch up with continental changes to the competition. Any time change has been mooted, England is always against it, always ready to say it will not work.

Remember the back pass rule, banning a goalkeeper from picking up a ball kicked by his own team mate? This was introduced almost 20 years ago. The argument was that it was needed to quicken the game, and end negative play and time wasting. At that time, many in the British game were convinced nothing good would come of this change. The predictions were dire. It would, we were told, destroy the game as we know it. Now is there anybody who wants the old rule back? I doubt it. Has it destroyed the game? It may not have radically changed the game but it has done no harm, perhaps, some good.

A certain Michel Platini was the inventor of the idea and something very similar is happening with another idea backed by Platini and his UEFA, the Europa League. This time last year, when UEFA proposed it, the English game and media were convinced that it was not necessary. The general view was that it would generate little excitement and clubs would not field their best teams. What was the point of it all?

Now, with both Fulham and Liverpool in a position to be in the final, there are not many who share that view. Indeed David Moyes of Everton could not hide his rage that Portsmouth may be allowed in the competition at the cost of his club. Portsmouth have qualified for Europe. This is because their Cup Final opponents Chelsea’s league position guarantees them Champions League football next season. Even if Portsmouth lose the Cup Final, they can take Chelsea’s place in Europe.

The problem for Portsmouth is they did not make the necessary financial disclosures to the FA by March 31. Since this is necessary for clubs to play in Europe, Portsmouth stand to lose out. So they can only play if the FA makes an exemption from its own rules. We can be sure, if it does that, Moyes will not be the only club manager who will be furious.

Nothing better illustrates that the English critics of this competition were wrong.

Yes it is true English clubs like Fulham started the competition expecting little and offering even less. Fulham made it clear that it was low on their priorities. Towards the end of last year, when I spoke to the Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, he did not make any secret of that.

Now Hodgson is no insular English manager. He is an Englishman fashioned by Europe. He defied English football stereotypes by going abroad to manage aged just 29.

Such thoughts were not entertained by his contemporaries then. This was 1976 but, not having opportunities in this country, he went to manage Halmstads BK in Sweden. Since then he has built up an impressive CV of continental clubs including Inter Milan and the Swiss national team.

Yet when we spoke with Fulham playing in the group stage of the Europa League, Hodgson was very blunt, “The chairman made it very clear: give it your best shot but for Christ’s sake don’t let it impact on the Premiership. I am not going to thank you for getting us to the quarter-final of the Europa League if we are at the bottom of the Premier League.”

This shaped Hodgson’s European venture, “I told the chairman I might jiggle about with the team, use different players, and give a guy like Chris Smalling [since transferred to Manchester United] some games.”

His words as Fulham played Basle are worth recalling, “Of course we will go to Basle and work our balls off to try and beat them but, if it doesn’t work, it will not be like Liverpool – a crisis – everything has come to an end. For us it will be bye-bye air miles, good experience, how far away from the relegation zone can we get?”

For Fulham things are very different now. They are safe in the Premier League. Now they can target the Europa League and demonstrate that the English Premier League is not just the top three but also has depth. For Fulham the competition is now very far from being a tin pot cup. A club having the sort of success that Fulham or Liverpool have had could make over £10 million and that is not to be sneezed at.

I am also certain that the new Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton would like Liverpool to win the Europa League. He has been brought into sell the club and I am sure he knows the price that Liverpool’s owners Messrs Hicks and Gillette want is more likely to be realised should Liverpool win this competition in its inaugural year.

The simple truth is that a competition like the Europa League was needed to cater for clubs not good enough for Europe’s top league. Once the European Cup had become the Champions League, change was inevitable. These changes became imperative when, just over a decade ago, the threat of big clubs breaking away forced UEFA in effect to make the Champions League a midweek European league.

You can say it has taken UEFA a long time to come up with format. Its problem was to devise a competition that provided collective selling of television rights thus generating decent money which the previous incarnations of this competition did not. Now that it has managed to do that, it deserves credit. Instead of always pillorying those who introduce new ideas, we should perhaps avoid instant judgements and take a more reasoned view of why change is necessary.

Not all change is for the worse.

Mihir Bose is one of the world’s most astute observers on politics in sport and, particularly, football. He formerly wrote for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and until recently was the BBC’s head sports editor.