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Fairytales and curses

Benfica's fans have endured a tough run in finals. GettyImages

TURIN, Italy -- They had packed Turin’s pretty piazzas, and lined the streets from the Po River to the soaring spire of the city’s famous Mole Antonelliana, red shirts “jumping like poppies” -- as the club hymn “Ser Benfiquista” so poetically puts it.

On Thursday, though, Turin was bereft of its Benfica contingent. Europa League expectation had been borne out of a gruelling visit to the Juventus Stadium just three weeks ago, when a robust defensive display eliminated their hosts. Then, a 0-0 draw had been enough. This time, it was not.

Sevilla’s triumph on penalties in the Europa League final was a heart-warming one; the new champions were a team little fancied when they began their long continental excursion last August. But for supporters of Benfica, who had prayed for a long-awaited European trophy to pay the perfect tribute to their late, great hero Eusebio, it was heart-wrenching.

Many pour scorn on the Europa League, claiming it is merely a second-rate competition devoid of real meaning. One glance at Benfica’s devastated supporters would suggest otherwise. Having now suffered eight successive European final defeats -- with the fabled “curse” placed on them by ex-coach Bela Guttmann in 1962 seemingly showing no signs of abating -- there is no question of the competition’s importance to the fans.

“This has been very difficult for Benfica -- the coaches, the players and the supporters -- to take. They wanted to win this trophy so badly and they thought this was the one to win,” O Jogo journalist Joao Sanches reflected to ESPN FC. “Admittedly they have thought all the last seven finals were the one to win, too, but this time there was more hope than ever. They were expected to have learned the lessons from losing to Chelsea in last year’s final and this season they were the favourites. It is a very tough moment for them.

“The ‘Guttmann Curse’ is something that has been well covered in the international press, and though it has not been so much on the agenda in Portugal it was unquestionably on the mind of the fans -- they will certainly still believe it now. Some supporters thought that because Benfica won their two European Cups against Spanish sides it would mean another win, but one superstition superseded the other. In the middle of the season, the club paid homage to Guttmann -- they erected a statue in the stadium, and though the board said it wasn’t an attempt to try and end the curse, there was also some hope that it would work. They will have to try something different!”

For Benfica, this season’s Europa League campaign was a relatively short one -- the final was their ninth game of 2014 after Champions League involvement before Christmas. Sevilla’s path was somewhat more tumultuous: thrown a late invitation to the Europa League after what was their joint-worst La Liga finish in a decade, Unai Emery spent nine months and 19 matches plotting his side’s route to the Juventus Stadium. While Benfica were unbeaten en route to Turin, Sevilla snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on many an occasion -- overturning first-leg deficits against Real Betis and FC Porto, and requiring a 94th-minute Stephane Mbia winner in the semifinal second leg at Valencia.

Triumph in Turin was the third time Sevilla have got their hands on the trophy after back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2007, the first of which was their inaugural European success. It has become a competition of special significance to Sevilla fans, but there can be few who regard it as fondly as the aptly named Jorge Casanova. The bleary-eyed Andalusian was smiling widely at Turin airport on Thursday morning after Sevilla’s most recent taste of silverware, though for him it is the 2006 victory over Middlesbrough that will live longest in the memory.

“Being champions again is a wonderful feeling,” Jorge said. “We arrived at the final having had a lot of luck during the knockout rounds. Wednesday night we felt we were happy just to be there, and then the luck continued as we won on penalties. I have been to each of Sevilla’s three finals and all have been different but, personally, 2006 was the most special.

“That Sevilla team played great, great football -- it was a golden generation that is superior to the current squad. Now the team is great as a unit, but then we had players like Luis Fabiano, Freddie Kanoute, Dani Alves, Jesus Navas and Adriano. It was our first European trophy, but more importantly it was in Eindhoven before the final that I first met my wife! Later she moved from Netherlands to Spain and now we have two sons.”

These sorts of football fairytales are what make the Europa League worthwhile. It may be maligned by clubs who take continental football for granted, but for the rest of Europe there exists a definite prestige to winning, and even just competing in, the competition. This Saturday, Premier League side Hull City face the biggest match in their history against Arsenal. Win or lose, thanks to the Gunners’ Champions League qualification, the Tigers will be competing in Europe for the first time.

“It means everything to the Hull City fans to be able to watch our club playing in Europe for the first time,” says Bernard Noble, press officer of the Hull City Official Supporters Club. “To have Hull City in Europe is going to be nothing but a wonderful experience. It’s wrong that bigger clubs belittle the Europa League -- obviously it’s easy to say being the first time we’ve qualified, but we can’t wait to go onto the continent, whether it’s Moscow, Milan … As is the case wherever we play, there will be a fantastic following, and we can’t wait.”

One of the major complaints about the Europa League is the concept of sides entering the competition having been “demoted” from the Champions League. It is a stick with which the Europa League is often beaten, with the connotations of it being a “losers” tournament somewhat difficult to shake. Really, though, it is a double-edged sword; the arrival of Champions League clubs sparks a greater interest in the competition, and smaller clubs who have progressed from the group stage are rewarded with glamour ties against some of the continent’s most famous sides. It is not patronising to say that Swansea fans were treated to a trip of a lifetime at Napoli in the last 16, while Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets were just one team to demonstrate that upsets are still possible when they dumped out Lazio.

The target of the Europa League when it was established five years ago was to enrich European football for the many, not the few, and UEFA president Michel Platini feels it is delivering on that promise.

“It is very well perceived in Europe, and is becoming more and more popular,” Platini tells ESPN FC. “But we have always the comparison with the Champions League; the comparison of the money of the Champions League, of the glamour of the Champions League. Since the Champions League began, it killed all the other European competitions. It killed the Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Cup, and we were obliged to find a new competition for the rest of the clubs in Europe.

“We changed the system a few times, and many different clubs have the potential to win this competition, whereas it is more difficult to win the Champions League. I am happy if people are happy with the football, and I believe they are.”

The formula is not perfect, and in a popularity contest, the Champions League will always be king. But the Europa League, as Sevilla fans will attest, should at least be viewed as a worthy consort.