The beauty of the Europa League, now occupying the mezzanine storey of Uefa’s expanding hierarchy of midweek competitions, lies in the eye of the beholder. For Liverpool or Ajax, clubs who boast 10 European Cups between them and are far more accustomed in recent years to being in the senior Champions League, participation in this season’s second-tier event can feel grudging.
But for the teams who now get to rub shoulders with them, to visit Anfield and Amsterdam in a major international club competition for the first time, the Europa League is a thrilling endorsement of progress, a proof of upward mobility.
These are the sorts of nights that Brighton & Hove Albion, the admired upstarts of the English Premier League, and Union Saint-Gilloise, the agile climbers of the Belgian leagues, have to look forward to as they on Thursday embark on European campaigns that for both would have seemed far-fetched a very short time ago.
Six years ago, Brighton had only just come up from the Championship, England’s second division. They will host AEK Athens this evening, a landmark for a club who have never before qualified for a Uefa competition, ahead of a series of trips in the group phase to major hubs of the continent: Marseille next month; Ajax in Amsterdam in November; and then Athens.
Union SG, as they are known for short, have risen even more swiftly, up from the second level of the Belgian professional pyramid only in 2021, after almost half a century in the lower tiers. They were immediately competing for the league title.
This will be Union SG’s second successive Europa League adventure, and among the destinations ahead of them if they are to again reach the knockout phase are Liverpool, who they meet at Anfield next month and Toulouse, the French club they host on Thursday.
“Our target is to reach the next stage,” said Alexander Blessin, the Union SG head coach. “And to win every game, even if with Liverpool in the group that’s going to be hard. We have a lot of new players and I want them to enjoy the atmosphere, and write a new story.”
The high turnover of players is part of the ritual for any successful Belgian club, ambition driving the better performers to more prestigious, wealthier leagues. During the summer, Union SG sold key individuals to clubs in France’s Ligue 1, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and to the German Bundesliga, from where Bayer Leverkusen swooped for the Nigerian striker Victor Boniface.
He had performed well for Union SG against Leverkusen in last season’s Europa League; he has scored five times at a rate of a goal a game for his new club already this season. Union SG sold Boniface, 22, for over €20 million, more than three times what they had paid Bodo/Glimt, of Norway, a year earlier.
That, in a nutshell, is what Union SG do so skilfully: they scout talent from far and wide, in many cases painstakingly curating performance data and identifying what they perceive to be the most relevant metrics. On a bigger scale, in the wealthier Premier League, that’s been a key to Brighton’s rise: midfielder Moises Caicedo, scouted in Ecuador, was this summer sold to Chelsea for €116 million, more than four times what Brighton bought him for two-and-a-half years earlier.
The shared methods are no coincidence. Brighton chairman Tony Bloom, a methodical analyst of form and the numbers that explain it, has held a stake in Union SG for five years, a holding he was obliged to reduce so he was no longer the majority owner once Brighton and the Belgian club found themselves in the Europa League at the same time – in order to satisfy Uefa concerns about potential conflict of interest should the clubs meet one another.
The relationship between the clubs has involved some mutually beneficial transfers. Kaoru Mitoma, the Japan winger, was loaned to Union SG for a season ahead of his superb impact for Brighton in 2022/23. And when this summer, Union SG studied the form and the statistics of an Argentinian defender with the capacity to play across the back line and backed him to thrive in Europe, they were tracing very closely a path Brighton had already taken.
Union SG’s new Argentine is one Kevin Mac Allister. He’s the younger brother of Alexis, who joined Brighton direct from Argentinos Juniors in 2019, debuting in England a year later. The older Mac Allister has since won a World Cup and in July moved for over €40 million, yielding another handsome profit for Brighton. His new club are Liverpool, where, all being well, the Mac Allister brothers will face another in the Europa League next month.