Captain Renault: The plane to Lisbon…you would like to be on it?
Monsieur Rick: Why? What’s in Lisbon?
In 1942 and the movie Casablanca it was the clipper to America. In 2014 it will be the Champions League final.
The long, hot summer of soccer is in full swing.
Since May we’ve seen Bayern Munich pull off a dramatic treble, the US Men’s National team blaze through the hexagonal qualifying group for next summer’s World Cup, and a pretty decent MLS season kick into gear.
But today, as the CONCACAF Gold Cup now pauses before this weekend’s quarterfinals, we should look across the pond and note the launch of the 2013-14 Champions League qualifying campaign, whose second round of qualification began last night.
While the big boys of Europe are comfortably through to the group stage, every champion from the lesser-quality leagues, as well as the second-rate teams from countries like England, Spain, Germany, and France must play through a series of qualifying stages throughout the summer in order to make it through. (For the full map of who makes it and who has to play in, see this chart.)
With group stage qualification comes not only six guaranteed games against major European clubs, but also a whole lot of publicity and TV time and a handsome series of financial rewards tied to performance.
So tonight, in the majesty that is Gyor, Hungary, the little blue-and-yellow-engine-that-could, or last year’s champions of Israel Maccabi Tel Aviv, begin their qualifying campaign in earnest against Gyori ETO FC, the reigning champions of the Hungarian League. The teams play a return leg in Tel Aviv next week, and the winner will move on to the third round in August, dreaming of next May’s final in Lisbon.
Last year HaPoel Kiryat Shmonah came up just short against BATE Borisov in the final qualification round, but HaPoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa have both made it through in recent years.
Let’s hope that fortune favors the underdogs again this time around.
Also this week, HaPoel Tel Aviv faces PFC Beroe Stara Zagora in Bulgaria, and Maccabi Haifa hosts Xazar Lankaran FK from Azerbaijan in the second round of Europa League qualifying. HaPoel Ramat Gan has already moved on to the third qualifying round.
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