How to Follow Soccer in Europe
Page 1. Introduction and National Competitions
1. Background. Comparing American Sports Leagues to the European Soccer System
We'll start by explaining American sports competitions and compare it with the European system.
Clear as mud? Now, with the comparisons laid out, let's explore the types of competitions separately, starting with the simplest -- how the National Leagues run.
2. The National League Competitions
The national club league is normally the premier competition for each country.
Nearly all European countries have their own national professional club league (or "first division"), where the team that finishes with the best record is the national champion. These leagues run a strictly balanced schedule, with each club playing every other club twice -- once home, once away -- or four times -- twice home, twice away -- depending on the number of clubs. Most national leagues play their games on the weekends, with perhaps one or two games in mid-week. The following table lists the major European competitions.
Most also have at least a "second division" that is part of the national club league. The clubs in the first and second divisions are fully independent, and can move between the divisions using promotion and relegation. The last place clubs (usually three) in the first division are relegated to the second division for the following season. These are replaced by the top clubs in the second division. Teams with a third professional division, like England, promote or relegate clubs with the second division, etc. Usually, the number of clubs in the first and second divisions are the same, and their games are played concurrently.
The links in the below table open a separate browser window to the respective federation home pages.
Promotion and relegation does have a side effect in the respective first divisions -- the tendency for a pool of 'elite' clubs to form that rarely find themselves endangered by dropping to the second division. These are clubs that have become reknowned across Europe since they routinely qualify for (and do well in) the Europe-wide competitions. This permit them to make more money through Europe and world-wide marketing and therefore sign the top players in the world. The imbalance of talent perpetuates their domination in their own first divisions. A selection of such teams that arguably fit this pattern are listed in the below table. If you were to go into a sports store looking for European soccer jerseys, chances are these clubs are among the ones you will see widely available.
Note: For many smaller countries, the 'elite' club tends to be based out of the capital city. Sparta Prague from the Czech Republic, who has recently done well in European competitions, comes to mind.
What does this mean for the rest of the first division? Those clubs spend the season trying to break through to the elite ranks, which they occasionally do for a season or two. But more often than not it is a perpetual exercise to escape relegation, or as they say 'avoid the drop'. Clubs promoted to the first division often get relegated straight away, or survive their first season on top and drop the next. The good news is that there is excitement for the lower clubs at the end of the season as they jockey for survival, unlike American sports where the bottom clubs seek to stay bottom and grab the first draft choice.
Some countries, like Germany, pay a lot of attention to its second division (in fact, the second division gets free TV coverage nationwide while people can only watch first division on pay-per-view or premier services). But for the most part, second divisions tend to get little attention in Europe.
Below the professional leagues are the amateur ones. These are usually regional or local, and the number of amateur divisions is determined by the numbers of clubs. These are truly amateur -- the players are not paid apart from a stipend, and must raise money through donations and sales for transportation and equipment. Yet they are part of the soccer federation, unlike in the US where amateur or non-professional leagues have no association with the major professional sports leagues.
Teams can be promoted and relegated between the amateur and professional ranks. The worst club in the lowest professional division drops to the amateur ranks and loses its professional status. For some clubs, this could be a significant economic catastrophe. Meanwhile, the top clubs in the top amateur ranks become professional in the following season, although there are typically limits or special requirements that an amateur club must meet before becoming professional.
To see how extensive this system is, refer to the next table showing the depth of the German soccer federation. The number of organized clubs across Germany is absolutely staggering. Also, there is a website (www.fussball.de) where fans can track every single professional and amateur club.
3. The National Cup Competitions
The segregation of the first division clubs from the other professional clubs may seem unfair since, in theory, a second-division club could in a given year actually be the best club. While that cannot be proven in a league competition, there are opportunities for all the professional and amateur clubs to play each other during the season. This is the goal of the Cup competition, a nation-wide single-elimination tournament that pits the top clubs against the lowly amateurs, occasionally producing unbelievable upsets. It is a prime opportunity for the Davids in soccer to take on the Goliaths.
Typically, the Cup competition goes six to ten rounds, depending on the number of clubs included (this would mean 64 to several hundred clubs included). Not all clubs are invited. Typically, first division clubs that did not make any European competitions are invited. The top half or some percentage of the remaining professional divisions are included, plus a spreading of successful amateur clubs to round out the numbers.
Cup games are interspersed throughout the season. In Germany, there are league days and Cup days and they never mix. In England, club schedules shift routinely in order to accommodate Cup games.
Traditionally, when professional clubs play amateur clubs, the amateur club gets to play at home. It is a thrill for the hometown fans when this happens, although the professional clubs will often treat such games as a breather and play their second string. Lower professional clubs will often host first division clubs for the same reason.
The prestige of the Cup final differs from country to country. England's FA Cup is arguably the most prestigious, with the Final being a major event. Meanwhile, the Cup competition in Germany gets almost no notice whatsoever, and some players view it as a nuisance that unnecessarily adds games to the schedule. Of course, it's important to note that Cup games do not impact the league, so if a second division club wins the Cup it does not earn promotion. It must win its place in the league separately.
(C) 2004 Tom Galvin