Soccer -- National Leagues

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Soccer -- National Leagues
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Home Page > Features > Following Soccer in Europe (Page 1)

How to Follow Soccer in Europe

Page One -- Background -- National League Competitions -- National Cup Competitions

Page Two -- UEFA Competitions -- UEFA Champions League -- UEFA Cup -- EURO -- World Cup Qualification -- International Friendlies --  Other Competitions

Page Three -- Understanding the Venue -- Following the Game --  Avoiding Trouble

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.  

American System

European System

American professional sports leagues operate in a single two-phased competition, regular season and playoff season, that ends with a definitive ' champion'.  The regular season serves as a qualification round for the playoff season, which declares the champion through head-to-head elimination play.  Winner stays, loser goes home.  It always culminates in a single championship game (Super Bowl) or series (World Series, NBA Championship Series, Stanley Cup Final).   European soccer runs multiple competitions concurrently, each culminating with its own champion.  Some use a regular season format, some use a head-to-head competition format, others using a combination.  Success in one competition does not carry over to another, the games are completely independent of each other.  The champion of a regular-season format competition is determined by best overall record with no head-to-head championship game, while the others do culminate with a head-to-head final.
The professional leagues are organized into "divisions" and/ or "conferences" that geographically or otherwise divide the league into groups for the regular season.  Teams within a group play each other far more often than other clubs.  Certain clubs will not face each other at all (in the NFL, some clubs may not face each other in the regular season for years). The European national leagues operate a 'balanced' regular season, with all teams grouped in a single table and playing each other an equal number of times.  For most soccer leagues, particularly in the larger countries, each team plays each other exactly twice -- once at home and once away.  Standings are determined by points, three for a win and one for a draw (or tie).
Qualification for the playoffs are governed according to these divisions and conferences.  Being a divisional champion outweighs the overall record of wins, losses, or draws of clubs in other divisions.  Overall record is the second qualifier to round out the playoff field. For certain competitions like the UEFA Champions League, qualification to the playoff rounds is determined by results in 'group play' where the groups are decided by a draw.  The draws are not equal.  Teams are assigned rank -- A level, B level, C, and D.  And each group consists of an A, B, C, and D club.
Each major sport (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) has one "major" national-wide professional league in the US (extending for some into Canada).  Some sports have 'minor leagues' while others have college leagues for developing players.  These leagues are independent operations, although their clubs will normally be affiliated with a major league club. Most European nations have one professional league, but divided among two to four 'divisions', similar to 'flights' in American amateur golf competitions.  For example, Germany has a first Bundesliga with the top 18 clubs, and a second Bundesliga with the bottom 18 clubs.  The first division competes for the championship, the second division for the right to play in the first league the following season.  Three teams are promoted each year, while the first division relegates its bottom three clubs for the next season.  
When a season is over, and the playoff champion determined, the only impact that carries over to the next season is the draft order where new players are chosen from the colleges or junior clubs.  Nothing about the team's performance carries over.  In the new season, the slate is clean In Europe, a number of things carry over from one season to the next.  Teams are promoted and relegated between divisions for the next season, and relegated teams are penalized from being able to win the overall championship ('last-to-first', so dear to American sports, does not exist in Europe).  Further, the top clubs in the first division qualify for the next year's Europe-wide competitions.
Although the US does participate in international competitions (like the Olympics), they tend not to interfere with or run concurrently with the US professional schedule.  An 'exception' is hockey which has interrupted its schedule for the Olympics at times and whose professional playoff (Stanley Cup) runs concurrently with the IIHF's World Championship. International competitions such as World Cup qualifications, UEFA's Europe-wide competitions like the Champions League, and the national leagues all run concurrently.  UEFA, as the governing body, assigns certain dates be available for specific competitions.  The national federations then determine how their assigned dates are used.  The summers are reserved for special competitions, such as the World Cup itself, and the European Championships that run in opposite years.

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.


Country Name of First Division Names of other Professional Divisions
England Premier League League Championship, League One, League Two
France Ligue 1 Ligue 2
Germany 1. Bundesliga 2. Bundesliga
Italy Serie A Serie B, Serie C
Portugal SuperLiga II Divisao B (North, Central, South)
Spain Primera Liga Segunda Division, Segunda Division "B"

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.


Country Names of some reknowned ('Elite') clubs
England Manchested United, Arsenal, Liverpool
Germany Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, VfB Stuttgart
Italy Inter Milan, AC Milan, AS Roma
France Olympique Marseille, AS Monaco
Spain Real Madrid, Valencia, Deportivo La Coruna, FC Barcelona
Portugal FC Porto

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 ( where fans can track every single professional and amateur club.

German "Division" Name of League(s) Notes
1st Professional 1. Bundesliga  (Erste Bundesliga) Bottom 3 relegated
2nd Professional 2. Bundesliga  (Zweite Bundesliga) Top 3 promoted; bottom 4 relegated
National Amateur Regionalliga Nord and Sued Top 2 from each are promoted
State Amateur Oberliga (Ten in existence) Usually only champion is promoted to Regionalliga
District Amateur Verbandsliga (20-25 in existence) Usually only champion is promoted to Oberliga
Subdistrict Amateur Bezirksliga (hundreds) Promotion/Relegation depends on District
City Amateur Kreisliga A, B, C, D (thousands) Promotion/Relegation depends on District

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.  


At the same time, there are two European-wide club competitions.


National club champions (and select runners-up) qualify for the UEFA Champions League the next season.  The Champions League plays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and operates in four phases -- a qualification tournament, a first phase regular season (32 clubs), a second phase regular season (16 clubs), then an 8-team single-elimination playoff.  The playoffs are done by playing two games and combining the aggregate scores to determine a winner.


National runners-up qualify for the UEFA Cup which is a straight single-elimination tournament comprised of 128 clubs Europe wide.  UEFA Cup games are often played on Thursdays.  Two game playoffs are used in the later phases.

(C) 2004 Tom Galvin

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