Soccer: European Soccer Leagues Explained

Soccer: European Soccer Leagues Explained

Dick Moss, Editor, Physical Education

If you are a European soccer fan, please forgive this article. Last week, I watched the Champions Cup championships on television, and it inspired me to find out what it all means.

I understand the World Cup. The best players compete for their country with national teams advancing through qualifying tournaments in order to play in the big show. But what about all the other leagues and championships that take place between the World Cup. Why are there players from Brazil playing in Manchester, England? What are all these terms I keep hearing about: Premierships, First league, FA Cup?

So here's a quick summary of the results of my research. Understanding how these leagues work has already made me into more of a soccer fan - I now understand what's going on and what's at stake. I'll use the term "soccer" instead of "football" to avoid confusion with North American football.

National Professional Leagues

First of all, every major soccer country has it's own professional league, all playing with the same FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association)rules. These national club leagues often have two or more divisions, with the top division getting the most attention, and hence making the most money. The top division in England, for example, is called the Premier League and usually includes teams such and Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. In Spain, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Valencia play in their Primera Liga, and in Italy, AC Milan and Inter Milan play in their top Serie A league.

The championship in these leagues is based on the best record over the course of the season, and the teams play each other twice or four times. The winner is the National Club Champion.

While the extra money gives the teams in the top league the best chance of remaining in the top league, that position is performance-based. Teams from the bottom of the First League (often the bottom three) are "relegated" or "dropped" to the second division in the next season, and the top three teams from the second division are promoted to the top division. The same exchange occurs between the second and third division, if there is one.

Beneath these teams are the amateur leagues comprised of regional or local teams, with players playing only for a small stipend. Amateur teams can be promoted into the professional ranks and the worst pro teams and be dropped to amateurs. Because of this, every game holds great significance, both financially and in terms of prestige.

The Premier League Homepage Link

The National Cup Championships (i.e. FA Cup)

Since the placement in leagues is based on play from the previous year, it's possible that a team from the second, third or even amateur division might actually be the best in the country. So, there are opportunities for all of the professional and amateur clubs to play each other. While not every team is invited (usually it's the less successful Division 1 teams and the top from each lower division and amateur leagues).

These National Cup competitions are single elimination and take place throughout the season, usually in the amateur club's venues -- which can create quite a stir. No advancement through divisions occurs from the results of this league, and the top teams often play their second string. And the prestige of these competitions varies from country to country. In England, the chance of seeing a huge upset makes the matches very popular and its FA Cup Final is a major event. In Germany, however, cup competitions get little attention.

The FA Cup Homepage Link

International Play

While these national league and cup competitions are taking place, the professional league champion from each country (based on last year's results), and a few second-place finishers, are simultaneously competing in the UEFA Champions League. The UEFA stands for the "Union of European Football Associations."

These teams play mid-week (most national club games are on weekends), through four phases of play which eventually qualifies only two teams for the championship game. This year, it was Barcelona versus Manchester United, with the underdog Barcelona coming out on top. This game receives huge international attention.

UEFA Champions League Link


Like the NHL or NBA, teams are allowed to field the best team they can afford, and they sign players from around the world to multi-million dollar contracts if they think they can help them to win. That's why a player like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo played for England's Manchester United this year, and Argentina's Lionel Messi played for Barcelona. The best of the top division clubs have multi-million dollar budgets that rival North American professionals sports. A 2006 BBC survey showed that the average wage per year for players in England's Premier league was 676,000 pounds sterling, or about $1.1 million dollars per year.

BBC Soccer Wage Survey Link

Reference: How to Follow Soccer in Europe.

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