The old joke about the Europa League is that it crowns Europe’s 33rd-best team. The best 32, after all, play in the Champions League, the top-tier continental competition.
If you want to be pedantic about it, that isn’t actually right. Because after the Champions League group stage, the eight third-placed teams that fell just short of the knockout stages funnel down into the Europa League. So perhaps the winner is Europe’s 17th-best team. Or something.
This old trope is both pointless and misses the point. The Europa League is precious because it isn’t the top tournament. It’s still big enough for major clubs to meet. And shorn of all the pomp and importance of the Champions League, it tends to produce more compelling games at the sharp end of the tournament. Ever since the final went to a single-game format, rather than home-and-away, back in 1998, only three editions have produced fewer than two goals.
So, too, this year. In Cologne on Friday, Sevilla went behind, took the lead, gave it away and finally prevailed 3-2 in a madcap title game that thrilled for each and every minute.
The finalists had both qualified for next season’s Champions League through their placement in their domestic leagues. As such, that berth was no incentive to win this game. The only thing at stake was the trophy itself, the glory of lifting a cup that isn’t the biggest but still very big.
Inter Milan was knocked out of the Champions League on the final day of the group stage with a loss to Barcelona. But lately, it has been resurgent thanks to manager Antonio Conte and a raft of expensive new players, and is coming off its highest points total in Serie A in a decade, finishing just a point behind Juventus.
Inter hoped to solidify its upward trajectory on Friday. Sevilla, amazingly, vied for and lifted a sixth Europa League title in just 15 years, underscoring its reputation as the ultimate cup-fighter.
The winning goal was scored by Sevilla defender Diego Carlos, the man who should have been sent off minutes into the game, who gave away two penalties — one awarded and one not. Carlos unloosed a bicycle kick from close range in the 74th minute that looked like it would go wide until Romelu Lukaku accidentally stabbed the ball into his own net.
Even with its royalty strike-partnership of Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Inter was undone by a stronger Sevilla, orchestrated by the criminally unappreciated Ever Banega on this wild night.
It took just 35 minutes for the fourth goal to be registered.
It took all of three minutes for Carlos to confirm his reputation for giving away cheap penalty kicks. He began fouling Lukaku several yards outside the box but didn’t complete the job of bringing the big Belgian down until they were in the penalty area. It was the clumsiest of fouls. And it should have resulted in a red card, since he raked the striker and didn’t even attempt to play the ball.
Lukaku converted his own penalty cleanly to extend his record by scoring in his 11th straight Europa League game.
A few minutes later, Carlos committed an obvious handball in the area but referee Danny Makkelie denied the penalty, and so did the Video Assistant Referee, for some reason. Conte was furious and nearly sent off himself. The contrast between him and his completely unemotive Sevilla counterpart Julen Lopetegui, who considers cheering for goals scored by his team as optional, made for marvelous theater.
The game never stopped being frenzied and relentless, even as the pace slowly dwindled in the summer heat.
After 33 minutes, de Jong scored a second time with a splendid header from a Banega free kick, when the latter managed to stop getting kicked by Inter players for a moment.
But only two minutes later, Diego Godin made it 2-2, likewise scoring from a free kick after Lukaku was brought down by, of course, Carlos.
Lukaku, who was one of the better players on the field, wound up the first player in history to score a goal and an own-goal in the same European cup final. Which is to say that something like this has only ever happened in a Europa League final. Because of course it happened in the Europa League.
This tournament may crown a champion in name only, but the Europa League rarely delivers a disappointing final.