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European Soccer: A Layman's Guide to the Professional Leagues and Competitions

Liverpool v Newcastle United - Premier League

At first glance, jumping in and following the complexities of European soccer from the United States looks like an overwhelming, daunting task.

Look at all those teams!

Look at all those leagues!

Look at all those cups!

Look at all those umlauts!

Post-2014 World Cup, more-and-more Americans have been intrigued by the sport and want to continue following it (at least until college football and the NFL return at the end of August). Nowadays, there’s more European soccer on American television often times than there is in Europe, making it feel like there’s a soccer game on all the time, every day. In turn, there are a lot of leagues and competitions to keep straight — such as last Tuesday’s UEFA Super Cup, which frankly sounds like something borrowed from a video game — making it a challenge to jump right in follow the sport without some hand-holding … or some sort of glib Internet “guide.”

And yes, on the subject of video games, the FIFA series will actually help you get a better grasp of of the names, teams, leagues. If you can track down an old Soccer Yearbook written by David Goldblatt, filled with many useful maps of each country and in some cases particular cities, all the better. Using Wikipedia as a crib sheet doesn’t hurt either, since most clubs participate in numerous concurrent competitions rather than the standard: preseason –> regular season –> playoffs we’re accustomed to in North American pro sports.

Even something as simple as the club’s name — often lacking the city of origin — or the way the seasons are archived — this year is considered “2014-15″ for example — can take some adjustment. (Remember league = regular season; Cups = knockout tournaments.) Adding yet another wrinkle, unlike our static American pro leagues, most European leagues consist of promotion and relegation up-and-down each country’s league pyramid.

(Deep breath)

Here’s my best attempt at a semi-serious, semi-snarky guide to help navigate the oft-overwhelming maelstrom with European competitions getting into gear this month. If I left out your club or your league, apologies, no malicious intent — honest. The goal here is to help newcomer, not split hairs like a UEFA coefficient … which we’ll address eventually.

England

Manchester City v Arsenal - FA Community Shield

For English-speakers, the glitz, glamour and self-perpetuating hype of the Barclay’s Premier League (a/k/a EPL) is the top draw for most Americans. With every game on television and massive clubs, it’s hard to look away … even if the 2014 World Cup (and recent Champions Leagues) proved the league isn’t the be-all, end-all for soccer.

League pyramid: Premier League (Top division, 20 teams); League Championship (second division, 24 teams); League One (third division, 24 teams); League Two (fourth division, 24 teams). Here’s a helpful Wikipedia link.
Promotion/Relegation: The bottom three teams from each division are relegated and replaced by three from the lower division. The first two promotion spots are automatic, going to the first and second place finishers, while the third is determined by a four-team playoff comprised of the third through sixth-place finishers in the lower division.
Top clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and (yes) Tottenham.
American TV: Premier League: NBCSN (all games available for free via streaming/Premier League extra. Note: NBC’s coverage is outstanding on all fronts.); FA Cup: Fox; League Cup: beIN; Football League: beIN
Game times:  EPL games run, most weeks, from early Saturday morning (7:45 a.m. Eastern) until around 2:30 p.m. There are usually 2-3 early Sunday games, completed before the 1 p.m. NFL kickoffs (the clock changes sometimes screw this up for a week or two), along with the occasional mid-afternoon Monday game. Often, around the holidays, there are games on Tuesday and Wednesday due to postponements/fixture congestion.
Champions League spots: Four
Cup competitions: FA Cup — oldest annual soccer competition, open to all teams in England, which lends to a lot of baseball-like nostalgia and poetic waxing of veteran members of the English media. League Cup — open to all clubs in the top four divisions, played in the middle of the week; of lower prestige than the FA Cup. (Also known as the Capital One Cup for sponsorship purposes.)
American connection: Tim Howard (Everton); Brad Guzan (Aston Villa); Geoff Cameron (Stoke City); Jozy Altidore (Sunderland); Brek Shea (Stoke City, for now); DeAndre Yedlin (Spurs, eventually); Many players play in the lower divisions, including Will Packwood at Birmingham City at Eric Lichaj at Nottingham Forest.
Semantics: The Premier League broke away from the old English league system before the 1992-93 season. The First Division refers to all top division English champions prior to the EPL’s establishment. …  The English league system also includes three Welsh clubs: Swansea City, Cardiff City and Wrexham. (Reminder: don’t bog yourself down with the minutia, if you follow you’ll pick it up eventually … or not, sometimes the details aren’t important aside from trying to out-nerd another soccer fan in public.)

Final, quick word: If you follow soccer in America, it’s almost impossible to avoid the Premier League. Bow down, succumb to it and let it wash over your Saturday and Sunday mornings before gridiron football kicks off later in the day. Hey, it’s usually better than watching the pregame shows.

Spain

FC Barcelona v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga

Spain’s Liga BBVA, a/k/a “La Liga” in the common tongue, is home to the two best (read: most-expensive) teams in the world: Real Madrid and Barcelona. The rest of the clubs scramble for money or to offset crippling debt, or sometimes even pay their players. (The way Spanish soccer deals with its television rights has helped to create a huge financial gulf.)  That said, Atletico Madrid did fend off both Real Madrid and Barcelona for last year’s league title and Sevilla won the UEFA Cup.

Top Divisions: Liga BBVA; Segunda Division (second division)
Top clubs: Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia.
American TV: beIN Sports, home to Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson behind the mics.
Game Times: Kickoffs in La Liga tend to be a little later than in England, with El Clasico (Barca/Real Madrid) often starting closer to 4 or 5 p.m. on the East Coast, as the powers that be in Spain have no qualms about playing at midnight local time to accommodate the world television audidence.
Champions League spots: Four
Cup competitions: Copa Del Rey
American connection: None at the moment worth noting.

Final, quick word: Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi … potentially on the same field when Real Madrid plays Barcelona.

Italy

A-League All Stars v Juventus

When writing about Italian soccer, you’re required to talk about the past. During the late 1980s and into the 90s, Serie A was THE league to play in, now it’s poorly-run, bickering clubs play in, aging half-empty stadiums — sometimes completely empty as punishment for racist behavior by fans — losing talent each summer. Roma signing 33-year-old ex-England international Ashley Cole is probably the biggest headline move thus far in Italy, which tells you all you need to know.

Top Divisions: Serie A; Serie B
Top clubs: AC Milan; Fiorentina Inter Milan, Juventus, Napoli, Roma.
American TV: beIN, much like the Spanish league, Serie A kickoffs are spread out later in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday.
Champions League spots: Three (Italy lost its fourth spot in the Champions League to Germany a few seasons ago and has only seen three teams make the quarterfinals since Inter won the tournament in 2009-10 under Jose Mourinho.)
Cup competitions: Coppa Italia
American connection: Americans own Roma; Alexi Lalas played in Serie A years ago.

Final, quick word: Well … Serie A still has Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo’s beard, Paul Pogba and maybe Rafa Benitez’s tinkering molds Napoli into a force. Roma, under its American ownership, looks promising, too as it tries to build a new stadium. Italian soccer will never be what it was in the early 90s, which the English press continually loves to lionize and glamorize. It’s also (maybe) not as terrible as the punch-line many make it out to be either.

Anyways, here’s an old Roberto Baggio highlight clip.

 

France

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Zlatan, Zlatan, Zlatan. After Qatari-based ownership bought Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in 2011, France’s Ligue 1 has morphed into a one-horse race, where nearly all the good players on other teams are sold for profit outside France, many to Newcastle United. AS Monaco, which plays its home games above a parking garage in the small tax-haven, was taken over by a rich Russian oligarch with big ambitions toward challenging PSG but was still conpelled to sell Colombian World Cup standout James Rodriguez to Real Madrid earlier this summer.

Top Divisions: Ligue 1, Ligue 2 (self-explanatory)
Top clubs: AS Monaco, Lille, PSG, Olympique Lyonnaise; Olympique de Marseille, Stade Rennais
American TV: beIN Sports.
Champions League spots: Three
Cup competitions: Coupe de France; Coupe de la Ligue
American connection: Non! (said with a French accent for emphasis).

Final, quick word: Zlatan.

Germany

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Germany won the 2014 World Cup, thanks in large part to its unrivaled, well-managed domestic league that puts an emphasis on developing homegrown talent. The flip side of this is recently Bayern Munich has snapped up most of this talent, or raided its top rival — Borussia Dortmund — to widen the gap atop the Bundesliga. Last season, Bayern won the league by 19 points over Dortmund.

Top Divisions: Bundesliga; 2.Bundesliga (Of note: the 16th-place team in the Bundesliga plays the second division third-place team in a playoff to determine the final promotion/relegation spot for the ensuing season.)
Top clubs: Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen; Borussia Dortmund, FC Schalke 04.
American TV: GolTV, early Saturday mornings. (Fox Sports 1 acquired the rights starting in 2o15-16.)
Champions League spots: Four
Cup competitions: DFB Pokal.
American connection: Very strong, given the amount of dual-nationals with American connections — just ask Jurgen Klinsmann. Julian Green (Bayern); John Brooks (Hertha Berlin) and Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach) lead the way and each played for the USMNT in Brazil this summer at the World Cup. Terrance Boyd plays in the second division with newly promoted Red Bull Leipzig.

Final word: Despite Bayern’s dominance, the German Bundesliga can be entertaining — goals flow like lager — but most cable and satellite systems have relegated GolTV off the dial. Germany probably has the best across-the-board fans/atmosphere in Europe. Tickets are cheap, too. Watching German soccer on television makes you wish you were actually watching from inside the stadium most times.

Other Clubs of Note:

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Ajax (The Netherlands): At one time Johan Cruyff’s home club and four-time champions of Europe (last in 1995 under current Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal), were one of the true elites in club soccer. However, like all Dutch soccer clubs, it cannot compete financially with the big spenders in England or elsewhere, turning Ajax into a selling club. Dutch soccer, as seen at the World Cup, can still produce excellent prospects thanks to its youth system.

Anderlecht (Belgium): The biggest club in Belgium and home to American Sacha Klejstan. Despite its nice-looking purple uniforms, Anderlecht usually puts up as much fight in the Champions League as an FCS college football team against an FBS team to open the season.

Benfica (Portugal): Half of Portugal’s “big two” with FC Porto. Benfica and Porto (and SC Braga) have each been excellent in European competitions in recent years, helping the Portuguese top division move up to No. 4 in the UEFA coefficient rankings and three berths into the Champions League. Benfica has massive worldwide support and is the club which brought the legendary Eusébio to Europe.

Celtic (Scotland): The first British team to win the European Cup/Champions League in 1967 with its so-called “Lisbon Lions.” Celtic is still home to great fan support at Parkhead in Glasgow, but it’s influence has waned greatly in recent seasons. Celtic also lost its heated rivalry with Rangers (jointly known as “The Old Firm”) when the latter was relegated down the Scottish pyramid due to financial insolvency.

CSKA Moscow (Russia): Current champions of Russia.

FC Basel (Switzerland): Roger Federer’s team has quietly put together a couple nice seasons in the Champions League, of late, producing some standout prospects in the process like Xherden Shaqiri, now at Bayern Munich, and Mohammed Salah, now riding the bench at Chelsea.

FC Porto (Portugal): Champions League winners in 2004 under Jose Mourinho, Porto has been a consistent force in Europe over the last decade. The club has massive home support and makes a tidy profit selling off players like Falcao to bigger, richer leagues. (Although often that profit is shared by agents and or other “third-party” owners.)

Fenerbahçe (Turkey): Reigning Turkish champions were handed a two-year European ban in 2013 for domestic match-fixing. On the plus side, the club is also home to Dirk Kuyt.

Galatasaray (Turkey): Winners of the 2000 UEFA Cup and huge rivals with fellow Istanbul clubs, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş. Also the current home to Dutch star Wesley Sneijder.

Olympiacos (Greece): The 41-time Greek champions; almost knocked out David Moyes’ Manchester United in the Champions League last season.

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine): A power in recent year thanks to a pipeline to Brazil. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the club due to the current political situation in Ukraine. This season Shakhtar is playing its home games in Lviv.

Sporting Clube de Portugal (Portugal): Sometimes called “Sporting Lisbon,” this is where Cristiano Ronaldo got his start. Although its power has waned in recent years, it finished ahead of Porto last season and directly qualified for the Champions League group stage.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia): Zenit won the 2008 UEFA Cup … back when Andrey Arshavin was (honest) good. Also home to some overly backward-thinking fans. Zenit is backed by Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant which is also a main sponsor of the UEFA Champions League.

European Competitons

In addition to the domestic leagues and cups, the top teams across all UEFA league participate in two “continental” competitions: the UEFA Champions League and second-tier Europa League.

Twenty-two teams automatically qualify for the Champions League group stage … then it gets a little more complex (but not really if you don’t pay attention until the final playoff round). In short, the field of is determined by a league finish from the previous season — not necessary by league champions — meaning the second and third place English teams are automatically in the group stage, whereas the champion of Dutch Eredivisie has to qualify through a playoff. The berths and who gets what is determined by the UEFA coefficient.

Each tournament is comprised of their own qualifying playoffs before the tournament proper begins with the group stages in September, weeding out the minnows from places like Moldova. In theory the Champions League pits the best of the best to crown the best team in Europe. Playing in the Champions League provides a huge financial windfall and allows clubs, in theory, to attract the best players. It’s part of the reason why there is an unofficial “Fourth Place Trophy” in the Premier League, of which Arsenal are the unofficial record holders.

Real Madrid is the reigning Champions League winners, winning its record 10th title in May.

UEFA Champions League

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The best of the best + an operatic theme song.

Teams: 32, eight groups, top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds. (77 teams enter each year and there are four rounds of playoffs before the group stage.)
Group Stage: Six home-and-home games from September through December.
Knockout rounds: The first three rounds are two-leg home-and-home, beginning in mid-February, before the one-off final.
American Television: Fox Sports, played on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. Final is on a Saturday in May.
Semantics: Prior to 1992, the tournament was commonly referred to as the “European Cup” (not be confused with the European Championships, played by national teams), before changing to the Champions League.

Final, quick word: Don’t worry about anything until the Group Stage, unless your favorite team is mired in the qualifying playoffs. Although the Group Stage tends to be a rote affair, the knockout stages are usually the best soccer of the season each year.

UEFA Europa League

Sometimes an annoyance, sometimes compelling. Your go-to spot if you want to see club teams with impossible names to spell or pronounce — or Tottenham! (Zing!) The Europa League’s existence is confusing, as is its qualifying standards which has seen Wigan Athletic and Hull City enter the competition due to their performances in the English FA Cup.  

Teams: 48 in group stage, 32 in knockout rounds — the eight third-place Champions League teams move into the Europa League knockouts.
Group Stage: I’m confused, too.
Knockout rounds: Infinite, maybe.
American Television: Fox Sports + Streaming, played on Thursday afternoons.

Final, quick word: For English teams, the Europa League is a blessing and a curse, whereas to teams in Spain and Portugal (which take it very seriously) it’s a way to pocket a little more, much-needed revenue that isn’t gobbled up by the domestic league giants.

Selected Glossary:

Aggregate: Many cup competitions take place over two legs. Aggregate simply refers to the total score after both legs.
Away Goals: An inane format used to break ties, notably the UEFA Champions League. If a two-leg match finishes level on aggregate, whichever club scored more goals on the road (away), advances.
Barclay’s Premier League: The official name, for sponsorship purpose of the top division in England. Also referred to as: BPL, EPL, Prem, Premier League, Premiership.
Champions League proper: Group stage of the Champions League, consisting of 32 teams.
The Football League: In England, the League Championship, League One and League Two are collectively known as the so-called “Football League.”
Club World Cup: The winners of the Champions League from each FIFA confederation plays in an annual tournament each December. Despite using the term “World Cup” it’s mostly an afterthought, save for a Cinderella-type story.
“Super Cup”: Usually refers to an early-season, one-off game between the previous season’s winners league/cup winners. Not hugely important, big picture. In England it’s called the Community Shield.

Quick Example:

A top-tier team, Chelsea for example, from August-May will play:

  • EPL games aka “league” matches, mostly on the weekends.
  • Champions League games, midweek.
  • FA Cup games, weekends — depending how long it lasts in the competitions.
  • League Cup games, weekdays.

An average team, without European commitments, will simply play league and cup matches.

Hopefully this helps explain the structure to newfound soccer fans or curiosity seekers. Although it looks like a lot, it’s not that confusing if you’re open-minded and give it some time to process. If you really want to find pirated, illegal streams of the Danish SuperLiga, be my guest. This guide should be sufficient if you’re just dipping your toes into the waters of European soccer.

[Photos via Getty]

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