Americans are often confused by the soccer system in Europe. Here we have one major professional league per sport (e.g. basketball) and one championship trophy (e.g. the Lombardi trophy in football for the winner of the Super Bowl). Europe, however, is much different. Besides the multiple national leagues (EPL, La Liga, Serie A and so forth) there are additional competitions teams play in. To help the nouveau American learn about this labyrinth of trophies, GOA has prepared the following quick explanation of the English game, with some references to other countries where appropriate.
Since this is for an American crowd, we use the term soccer, not football, to avoid confusion. But for the record, soccer is actually an old English term. Really it is, so if a Brit starts pitching a whinnying fit, tell him it’s own fault. But we digress.
Anyway, we know Wikipedia has all this, but after speaking with many of our friends, we realized many just want a quick explanation showing the relationship between all the trophies and leagues. There’s a lot here, so we put in links to allow people to jump down the page.
How soccer is organized: FIFA (What is FIFA?)
The FA: England (What is the FA?)
Champions League (What is the Champions League?)
The FA Cup (What is the FA Cup?)
The Carling Cup (What is the Carling Cup?)
So first off, all of soccer (including the US) operates under the jurisdiction of FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations). FIFA is a world body, based in Switzerland. It’s non-profit, but makes a ton of money off of events like the World Cup -just like the NCAA. FIFA sets rules and regulations that everyone must follow if they want to participate in FIFA sanctioned events. Wanna play in the BCS (World Cup)? Abide by NCAA (FIFA) rules.
FIFA is comprised of national football associations spread around the world -this is important later on -in Europe the organization is UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). In the US, it’s US Soccer. These football associations are national organizations, e.g. The Football Association (FA) of England, (this does NOT include Scotland!). Now here is where it gets complicated. The FA is in charge of the professional league(s) AND it manages the World Cup team -the national team. Unlike the US, where, for example the NBA does not run our Dream Teams, even though it might help out. Basically,w e don’t have anything equivalent in the states.
Okay, so to recap: FIFA runs all of soccer. UEFA runs European soccer and reports to FIFA. And, the FA runs English soccer, both professional and the national team. Next step, how does the FA run English soccer?
Holding aside the national team for a minute, the FA operates professional soccer different than we run sports leagues in the US. Without going into all the details, there are different levels of leagues, not conferences or divisions like we have in the States. The best league is the English Premier League (EPL) -18 clubs. This is the league of the most famous Clubs like ARSENAL! and a few other you might have heard of.
A team wins the league by winning the regular season. There is NO playoff system in the EPL. The team that has the most points, NOT victories, at the end of the season wins. Victories are 3 points; draws (ties) are 1 point; 0 points for a loss. Should a tie occur at the end, there’s a whole formula with goal differential and head to head match ups that can be used. The number of points needed to win the League depends on how competitive the league is at the top. For example, if two teams are destroying the rest of the league, like down in Spain with barcelona and real madrid, the point total might be quite high.
Very important! Every year, the bottom three teams in the EPL are RELEGATED; that means, they are sent down to the lower league. And the top three from the lower league move up to the EPL. Needless to say relegation is a bad thing, both for a team’s honor and because of the HUGE loss of money involved. By the way, this is not unique structure, other European nations are the same.
It might be easier to picture the leagues in a vertical hierarchy, the English Premier League is on top; below that is the Championship League (not to be confused with Champions League); and, below that, there are several other levels. By contrast, the US is horizontal, we have the American and National Leagues in football and baseball; and, we have the Western and Eastern Conference in basketball. Similarly, the NCAA has conferences, and while some might be better than others, no one drops to Division II because of a bad season.
So, to recap: the EPL is the top league in England. A team wins the EPL by scoring the most points through wins and draws. And, the bottom three teams in the EPL are relegated.
So we’ve covered the basics. But the basics are necessary to understand the rest of the discussion. There are several other tournaments (and trophies) out there, but to understand them, you needed to know all of the above. Below, THREE additional trophies will be discussed, in this order: Champions League, FA Cup, Carling Cup. There is also the Europa League, but it’s the ugly step brother of the the Champions League; so we’ll discuss it there.
This is the most important trophy there is. Many an English fan will tell you they’d rather win the EPL (or domestic league) title over the Champions League, but that’s foolish. This is where the money is and where the global branding really happens. The winner of the Champions League is considered the best Club in the world. The Final is the most watched event, it’s now more watched than the Super Bowl.
The Champions League is run by UEFA (see above), not the FA. UEFA is comprised of all European countries from Iceland to Russia. Teams qualify for the Champions League in one of two ways. And yes, this is complex in that special way Europeans have. Also note, qualification for the Champions League happens the previous year; so a team’s record this year qualifies them for next year. Now then, the two methods of qualifying for the Champions League:
1. The winner of the EPL (and of other major leagues) gets an automatic berth, just like the NCAA for March Madness.
2. Teams that are not winners of their domestic league, can also qualify depending on what league they are in. In England, the top 3 teams (this includes the EPL winner) automatically qualify. Sort of the opposite of relegation. In addition, the fourth place team can qualify for the Champions League by going through a qualification process. They have to play other teams that didn’t automatically qualify. Again, this gets complex. If you’re curious, check out the wikipedia website.
Once qualified, how is the Champions League structured? In September, Champions League play begins with 32 teams -the group phase. In this first phase, the teams play in 8 groups of 4. The top two teams in each group advance. The top two teams are determined by the same point system (3 for a win, 1 for a tie). See our Transfers and Money section to understand why winning a game is very important (talk about money aspect).
After the group stage, the top two teams are pitted against teams from other groups. Each team plays two games: one at home and one away. To decide who plays who, there is a big “draw” by UEFA, it’s all over the TV (in the rest of the world). But the basics are: (1) teams from the same nation don’t play each other this round; and, (2) the number 1 team from one group plays a number 2 team from another group.
These games are called the knock-out phase. If you lose, you’re out of the Champions League. After the first knockout round, there are the quarterfinals; before the quarterfinals there is a another big televised draw and brackets are set until the end. Also, teams from the same nation can play each other). After that the semifinals (following the bracket) and then the Final, which is held in a predetermined city, just like the Super Bowl.
Beware! The knockout phase introduces another European wrinkle: the aggregate goal rule. A team may win the knockout phase by scoring more goals than their opponent, e.g. win the first game 2-1 and tie the second game 0-0 or even 1-1. But the aggregate goal rule means that goals scored when playing away count more, 2x to be exact. For example, if in the first game team A visits team B and wins 2-1, the aggregate score is 4-1. So team B will still be knocked out if they win 1-0. They have to win 2-1, forcing a tie and penalties. Or win with a margin to tie the 4-1 aggregate. For example, if team B won 3-2, that’s an aggregate of 7 (2×3+1) to 6 (2×2+2).
One more thing, sorry, UEFA has a formula (coefficient) to determine how many teams from a given national league, such as the FA, can qualify. Basically, if teams from the same league all do well, the league has a high coefficient and more teams can qualify. The EPL does well, so four teams can qualify as of now. Hey, we never said this was easy. It’s European.
The Europa League is just like the Champions League but has teams that didn’t qualify for the Champions League, e.g. the fifth place team in the FA. So it’s a second rate trophy. Also, teams that fail to make it out of the group stages of the Champions League are in the Europa League plus other teams that “qualify.”
Recap: teams qualify for the Champions League depending on their domestic standing at the end of the previous year. The Champions League is played in parallel with the domestic league, meaning teams that qualify play more games per year than teams that do not qualify. The Champions League has all of the best teams around Europe, so it’s a HUGE money maker and the king of the Champions League is like winning the Super Bowl -winning the division or Conference (domestic league) is fantastic, but the Super Bowl (Champions League) is the thing.
Another big trophy is the FA Cup. The FA Cup is special because it’s the oldest football competition in the world; the first competition was in 1871. But just as important, the winner of the FA Cup gets an automatic birth to the Champions League. This can get complicated, e.g. when the winner of the EPL also wins the FA Cup. Also, the tournament is open to lots of teams: all the teams of the EPL, all of the clubs in the FA’s football leagues, i.e. the lower divisions AND clubs at an even lower level, not in the FA’s mandate. So it can be a bit complex. I won’t go in to details, read it on Wikipedia, but they have a system that works it all out in the end. Sorta. Kinda. Okay, they still have issues sometimes.
The FA Cup is played alongside the EPL and the Champions League, so yes, Arsenal might have a Sunday EPL game, a Saturday FA game and a Wednesday Champions League game schedule. But when that happens, the EPL game is usually shifted.
Other countries have similar tournaments. For instance, Spain has the Copa del Rey (King’s Cup); Italy has the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup); France has the Coupe de France and so on. Like the FA Cup, these are the oldest tournaments in the respective nations and are considered the domestic champion because the tournaments are generally open to a huge amount of teams. That being said, the popularity of the tournament ranges from minimal (e.g. Italy) to strong interest (like England).
The key points are these: (1) the FA Cup is the oldest competition in the world and so there is a lot of honor winning it; (2) the winner qualifies for the UEFA Europa League.
Frankly, this is the trophy that confuses everyone, at least in the States. The EPL makes sense, that’s the main league. The FA Cup makes sense, it’s a tradition -oldest in soccer for that matter. And the Champions League is like the Super Bowl. So, what is the Carling Cup? The Carling Cup is a more selective FA Cup that was started much more recently, like 1960 or something. What makes the Carling Cup special is that it’s not open to everyone. Only the EPL teams and the Football League teams are allowed to participate: the top 6 or so leagues in the FA system. This limits the participating teams to around 90.
Unfortunately for the Carling Cup, the winner only qualifies for the Europa League, NOT the Champions League. It’s not surprising then that many of the big clubs -by big, I mean Arsenal, manu, chelsea and liverpool -use the Carling Cup to play their younger players. It’s a chance to play at a high level of competition -other teams are playing their starters, or best XI -and frankly, who wants to lose a really good player to injury or fatigue for a tournament that is the ugly step brother of the ugly step brother (the Europa League).
English fans desperate for a trophy will claim it matters, but fans outside of England aren’t likely to care much. It’s nice to have and its value increases if a team sweeps all the competitions, then it’s like a triple crown. Otherwise, it’s like getting a trophy when you’re a kid just for playing the game.
FIFA runs soccer. UEFA runs soccer in Europe. The FA runs soccer in England. In England there are multiple leagues and tournaments: the EPL is the best league, the FA Cup the best tournament. Winners of these leagues and tournaments qualify for the Champions League. The Champions League is a tournament run by UEFA and has the best teams from all over Europe. In the end, if you support a big Club, like Arsenal, you want your team to win the EPL title and the Champions League. Everything is icing after that.