UEFA offers bigger rewards to boost Europa League

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TURIN, Italy (AP) - Rewards for winning the often-unloved Europa League are getting bigger, maybe even enough to ignite more interest in countries like England and Italy.

Sevilla’s penalty shootout victory over Benfica on Wednesday after a 0-0 draw was the last final before UEFA offers winners a place in the following season’s Champions League.

“By introducing this reward there is a feeling that teams will take it more seriously,” UEFA Events marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein said.

An expected 20 percent increase in prize money from 2015 should also help with clubs likely to share about 250 million euros ($342 million).

The European Club Association says its 200-plus members are happy with the Europa League. However, it acknowledges a need to close a “big financial gap” between the globally successful Champions League and an event rebranded from the UEFA Cup only five years ago.

Today, that gulf is more than 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) each season.

“We have to be pragmatic - Europa League is not Champions League,” Epstein told The Associated Press ahead of the final. “It’s for teams that are more community (based) rather than international brands most of the time.”

Sevilla is one club where the Europa League has no image or identity issues.

“It’s a competition our fans really like,” said Sevilla coach Unai Emery, whose club won the former UEFA Cup in 2006 and ‘07. “We thought we had the responsibility to win.”

Still, even those UEFA Cups were different to its 1970s and 1980s prime.

Then, there was a popular trinity of UEFA competitions: the European Cup for national champions; the UEFA Cup for runners-up and other high-placed teams; and the Cup Winners Cup.

After the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992 - giving more games to elite clubs - the other two declined until the cup winners’ event was abolished in 1999.

The Europa League was launched in 2009 to rebrand an event bloated with clubs, playing in unfamiliar Thursday slots and a complex format with Champions League losers coming over at different stages.

Some clubs judged the Europa League not worth the bother and effectively fielded reserve teams. That was despite FC Porto and Atletico Madrid using the second-tier title as a springboard.

Coached by Jose Mourinho, Porto won the UEFA Cup in 2003 and the next year’s Champions League. Atletico Madrid will play city rival Real Madrid for the biggest club prize next week after winning Europa League titles in 2010 and 2012.

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