While players and trainers have been complaining about too many matches for years, UEFA is casually launching a new competition this year.

The Conference League, of which the first full round of matches will be completed on Thursday, must make European football real for every club, player and fan.

The first two matches in the new competition were already played on Tuesday.

Dutch football fans saw how Feyenoord drew 0-0 in Israel against Maccabi Haifa.

But 100 kilometers away, football history was written.

It was the first time that a club from Armenia played a match in the main draw of a European tournament.

Alashkert had the honor and lost 4-1 against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The three million inhabitants Armenia, a country in the Caucasus east of Turkey and north of Iran, is not the only country to have a club in a European main tournament for the first time this week.

Gibraltar (Lincoln Red Imps) and Estonia (Flora Tallinn) will also make their debuts on Thursday.

Feyenoord will go down in the books as the first Dutch club ever in the Conference League.

Feyenoord will go down in the books as the first Dutch club ever in the Conference League.

Photo: Getty Images

'Fans all over Europe can dream of foreign duels'

It was exactly what UEFA had in mind when it was decided in 2018 to create the third European club competition.

"Football is not a sport for the elite, not just for the rich. It is everyone's sport," UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said at the end of August at the group stage draw.

From the Netherlands, Feyenoord, AZ and Vitesse went there and European top clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and AS Roma also participate in the first edition of the Conference League.

But it is mainly the competition of the clubs from the small football countries.

In addition to the aforementioned Gibraltar, Armenia and Estonia, clubs from Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Finland are active in the group stage.

"In this competition, anyone can play against anyone," Ceferin just wanted to say.

"Clubs from small countries can compete against top teams. The Conference League is for clubs that don't have a realistic chance of playing in the Champions League or Europa League. Players and fans all over Europe can now dream of foreign matches."

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin with the Conference League cup.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin with the Conference League cup.

Photo: Getty

Conference League has similar allure to CL and EL

The Conference League has all the bells and whistles that the bigger two European tournaments have.

From a bombastic hymn that is played at every game when the players come onto the field to the uniform UEFA stickers in the stadiums and the white-green match ball.

The winner of the final, which will be played in the Albanian capital Tirana in May, will receive a huge cup.

Thanks to major sponsors such as adidas, Visa, Vodafone, Toyota and LG, all clubs that qualify for the group stage will receive 2.94 million euros in starting money.

All these preconditions give the new tournament the allure of a real European competition.

Clubs from small football countries can make their sporting dream come true, as Lincoln Red Imps already experienced.

The Le Coq Arena will be the setting for a European group match in Estonia for the first time on Thursday.

Flora Tallinn will then take on AA Gent from Belgium.

The Le Coq Arena will be the setting for a European group match in Estonia for the first time on Thursday.

Flora Tallinn will then take on AA Gent from Belgium.

Photo: Getty

"It's a big step for the club and for all of Gibraltar"

The national champion of the 35,000 inhabitants of the mini-state of Gibraltar was too strong for Riga FC from Latvia in the play-offs and thus qualified for the group stage.

It led to frenzied scenes in the Victoria Stadium, which can accommodate just two thousand spectators.

"In the last five minutes I didn't dare to look anymore because of the tension, I locked myself in the dressing room," says club president Dylan Viagas.

"And now we're still in seventh heaven. Many of us didn't believe we would get this far. It's a big step for the club and for all of Gibraltar."

The placement for the new competition led to rarely seen scenes at the modest club.

"In the last ten years we have not had as many audiences as in the play-offs and that despite all the corona restrictions," Viagas still remembers.

"The fans really got us through it."

In the group stage, Red Imps will face PAOK from Greece, Danish FC Copenhagen and Slovan Bratislava from Slovenia.

Enjoying the European duels is paramount for the team from Gibraltar.

"We are under no illusions, every draw would have been tough for us," says the chairman.

"We're going to enjoy every moment and just do our best."

The Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar can seat just two thousand spectators.

Conference League participant Lincoln Red Imps plays his home games here.

The Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar can seat just two thousand spectators.

Conference League participant Lincoln Red Imps plays his home games here.

Photo: Getty Images

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