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Inside European Football: How Is It Structured?

Inside European Football: How Is It Structured?

European Football feels like a daunting task for many sports fans, given the multitude of leagues, tournaments, and players that make it distinctly different from many other sports.

In Europe, football is overseen by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which operates under FIFA. UEFA governs 55 national associations and oversees top-flight club and national team competitions.

While Europe boasts many top-notch leagues, the 'big five' garner the most attention: the English Premier League, French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, and Spanish La Liga. These leagues feature some of the strongest club teams globally, attracting talent from across the world and earning a reputation as the pinnacle of soccer.

The Premier League, in particular, is a popular choice for new fans due to its accessibility and the presence of well-known clubs. However, no matter which league catches your eye initially, every league offers its own unique appeal.

What truly makes European soccer special are its clubs. From iconic powerhouses like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid to lesser-known gems like Brentford and Spezia Calcio, there's a club for everyone. Researching clubs' histories and traditions can be an enjoyable part of becoming a fan.

It's worth noting that not all clubs experience the same level of success, but that shouldn't discourage you from supporting a smaller team. European soccer operates differently from American sports leagues, with championships determined by a point system rather than playoffs.

For example, in the Premier League, the team with the most points at the end of the season claims the title. Additionally, clubs compete in various cups and tournaments within their own countries and across Europe, with standout performers earning the chance to compete in prestigious events like the UEFA Champions League.

Understanding the intricacies of European soccer may seem overwhelming at first, but with time, it becomes more intuitive. So, dive in, explore, and enjoy the rich tapestry of European soccer!

How do Domestic Leagues Work?

Most countries in UEFA have their own domestic league system, which is often called a 'pyramid'. At the top of this pyramid is the nationwide first division. Below that, the pyramid widens, and things vary depending on factors like population and the number of clubs. Sometimes, divisions stay nationwide, but they can also split into regional ones. This creates the pyramid shape you might see in a diagram.

Let's focus on the top tier. Usually, teams play each other twice – once at home and once away – from fall to spring. Some leagues in colder places might play within a single year or have a long break in winter to avoid playing in freezing weather. In any case, teams earn three points for a win, one for a draw, and the team with the most points at the end of all the games wins the league.

When teams have the same number of points, leagues have ways to decide who's ahead. Often, they look at the goal difference (goals scored minus goals conceded) first, then goals scored, and so on. Some leagues use the head-to-head record between teams as the first tiebreaker after points, including away goals, before looking at other stats from the season. Sometimes, it even comes down to which team got the fewest yellow cards. If needed, teams might have a special match, draw lots, or flip a coin to decide.

In the USA, what's known as the 'regular season' is just called 'the season' in most European leagues. When Europeans talk about 'play-offs', they usually mean deciding which teams go up or down to different leagues.

In the Bundesliga, 18 teams play 34 matches each – two against every team, once at their place and once at the other team's place – in a random order decided by the fixture list. The English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, and France's Ligue 1 – the other big leagues in Europe – all have 20 teams, so they play 38 matches each.

But each league has its own way of doing things. For example, in Scotland, they split the 'regular season' into three parts. Because there are only 12 teams in the Scottish Premiership, they play each other home and away in the first 22 matches. Then they play each other one more time, either at home or away, depending on how the matches are decided.

Once they've played 33 games, the league splits into two halves, with six teams in each half. Each team plays five more matches against the teams in their half. The team with the most points is the champion, but they can't move to the other half of the table. Sometimes, the team in seventh place might have more points than the team in sixth by the end of the 38 games.

Belgium's system is even more complicated. After 30 matches in the 16-team league, the top six teams go into the championship play-offs. Their points from the regular season are cut in half, and they play home and away against each other to decide the champion and who goes to Europe.

The team at the bottom of the league gets relegated, but they still have a chance in the Europa League play-offs with the nine teams above them – and the top six teams from the second division. They play in four groups of four, and the winners play a semi-final and final. The winner of that gets to play one of the teams from the championship play-offs for a chance to play in the Europa League. As long as everyone understands the rules, it's a very unusual system.

What is promotion and relegation?

In the USA and Major League Soccer, things are different from football in Europe because of promotion and relegation.

In Europe, teams can move up or down between levels at the end of each season. This means some teams from the bottom of a league (except the lowest one) go down to the one below. And the teams at the top of each league, except the top one, move up a level.

But it's not all the same everywhere. For example, in the Bundesliga, two teams automatically move up or down between Bundesliga 2 and the Bundesliga. The team that finishes third from the bottom in the Bundesliga plays against the third-place team in Bundesliga 2 to decide who stays in the Bundesliga.

In other big leagues like the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A, the three lowest teams automatically go down to the league below. But only two teams from the lower league move up automatically.

In England, the third-place team in the Championship plays against the sixth-place team, and the fourth-place team plays against the fifth-place team. The winners of these matches play in a final to decide who gets promoted. In Spain and Italy, they have similar playoffs.

This happens across Europe, and these playoffs are often exciting to watch at the end of the season.

Do cups have to do with leagues?

In the USA, the MLS Cup decides who wins the league at the end of the regular season and play-offs. But in Europe, cup competitions are separate from the domestic leagues.

National cups are mainly managed by the national association, not the leagues. For example, in Germany, the DFL manages the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, while the German FA handles the third division and the cup – the DFB Cup. The cup is a big deal for teams and is often older than the league system. It's usually a knockout tournament, and the winners might get into Europe if they haven't already through the league.

If a team wins both the top division and the cup, it's called a domestic double. In Germany, this has happened 16 times, with Bayern Munich doing it 11 times. Winning three trophies is called a treble, and four is a quadruple.

Sometimes, there are other cups, like league cups or regional cups for non-professional clubs. But usually, teams outside the top division don't get into these cups.

Liechtenstein has its own cup, even though its teams play in the Swiss league. But Monaco doesn't have its own professional league or cup, so its team plays in France's league system and represents France in Europe.

How does European qualification work?

European qualification means getting to play in one of the big soccer tournaments organized by UEFA. These are different from the European Championship, which is for national teams.

There are two main tournaments: the Champions League and the Europa League. In 2021, a third one, the Europa Conference League, will start.

Teams don't move between these tournaments like they do in domestic leagues. Instead, it's based on how well they did the previous season.

Mostly, teams qualify by doing well in their domestic leagues, but sometimes winning the domestic cup can also get them in. It also depends on how well their country's teams have done in European tournaments over time.

Some teams go straight into the main part of the tournament, while others have to play in qualifying rounds first. So, for some teams, qualifying for Europe means just getting the chance to try to qualify for Europe.

In Germany, for example, the top four teams usually go straight into the group stage of the Champions League. Winning the domestic cup doesn't get you into the Champions League, but it can get you into the Europa League.

For teams in lower-ranked leagues, the process is more complicated. But for Bundesliga teams, it's simpler because the league is considered one of the best in Europe.

What is a super cup?

So, we have leagues, cups, Champions Leagues, Europa Leagues, and even Conference Leagues – but what's a super cup?

There are two types: domestic and continental.

The continental one is a single match played between the winners of the Champions League and Europa League at the start of the next season. The winner of the Champions League goes to the FIFA Club World Cup, no matter what happens in the UEFA Super Cup.

In some countries, there's a domestic super cup too. It's usually between the winners of the league and the cup. For example, in Germany, the DFB Cup winners play against the Bundesliga champions. If one team wins both, the Bundesliga runners-up join the game.

In England, it's called the Community Shield and is played between the Premier League champions and the FA Cup winners.

In Italy, it's called the Supercoppa Italiana. It's usually played abroad and includes the cup runner-up if one team wins both cups.

Spain used to have a Supercopa with two matches, but now they have a new format with four teams playing one match each.

Every country does it differently, but the idea is the same: teams play for a trophy and a chance to qualify for Europe. You might need to do some research to understand how it works in each country.

Md Motasim Billa

Md Motasim Billa


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