Soccer -- UEFA Competitions

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Home Page > Features > Following Soccer in Europe (Page 2)

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 2.  UEFA Competitions

The United European Football Association, or UEFA, is the governing body for soccer in Europe.  It is comprised of the national federations for over fifty nations in Europe and Central Asia (its members include Israel and Kazakhstan).  It administers the game through the national federations, while also hosting its own competitions.  These are very prestigious world-wide events that are second only to the World Cup itself.  UEFA's two club competitions, the Champions League and UEFA Cup, are intensely followed through the soccer season.  Its primary international competition, the European Championships, pits country against country.  It is a mini-World Cup, full of intrigue and passion.

So, if you are interested in following the top flights in European soccer, this page is for you.

  1. Background.  Comparing American Sports Leagues to the European Soccer System

  2. The National League Competitions

  3. The National Cup Competitions

  4. Qualifying for the UEFA Competitions

  5. The UEFA Champions League

  6. The UEFA Cup

  7. The European Championships ("EURO")

  8. The International Scene -- Competitions and Friendlies

  9. The World Cup Qualification Tournament

  10. Other Competitions

  11. Going to the Game and Enjoying It (and Avoiding Trouble)

4.  The UEFA Club Competitions -- What they are and how to qualify

The UEFA Champions League is just that -- a league of national champions.  Each of the UEFA federation members send their national champions from a given year to the UEFA Champions League the next season.  Some countries get to send more than one, perhaps their second and/or third are included.

The UEFA Cup is a Cup competition that works the same way as the national Cup competitions, except that this only includes first division clubs from across Europe.

Qualifying for these competitions are directly related to two factors -- (a) where the team finishes in the first division and (b) which national federation it comes from.  Each competition takes a fixed number of clubs, with the slots apportioned to the national federations.  For example, Germany normally gets three Champions League slots and two UEFA Cup slots.  Since the Champions League is the greater of the two, it is the first, second, and third place clubs that go to the Champions League, while fourth and fifth place join the UEFA Cup.  Naturally, this favors the larger soccer nations, which makes sense.

UEFA manages the overall schedule for the competitions, assigning most of its competition dates on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, leaving the weekends to the national federations to play their own leagues.  These competitions do not go every week.

5.  UEFA Champions League

The UEFA Champions League is an extremely complicated competition.  It contains several phases, some of which are single-elimination, others are league format or group format.  But, however it goes, it systematically takes about sixty to seventy clubs and makes them earn their berth in the Champions League Final, usually held in late May.

The way it works is that the main competition has 32 clubs.  These 32 clubs either qualify directly or must play their way in according to seeding by UEFA.  In the case of Germany, for example, its first two clubs automatically make the 32, while the third place club must play its way in.  Most of the smaller nations must play all their entries in.

The following are the sequences of stages from start to finish.


Qualification Rounds.  Typically played in late summer/early fall before the national competitions get into swing.  These games determine the 32 clubs in the "First Round".  Usually three qualification rounds are held, and each are single-elimination.  Teams who must play in are seeded, and they enter the competition in either the first, second, or third rounds.

The weakest clubs face off in the first round, normally a two-game home-and-home series where aggregate goals determines the winner.


That winner then plays a team seeded to enter the competition in the second round (a stronger club).  That winner makes the third round and faces an even stronger club.


In the event a two-game series ends in a tie, then the 'away goals' rule applies -- teams who scored the greater number of away goals advances.  If that doesn't break the deadlock, then the teams must play some form of tiebreaker after the second game is finished (usually a penalty kick shootout).


First Round.  Usually held between September and December.  The 32 qualifying clubs are broken out into eight groups of four teams.  These groups then play six games, two against each other club in the group, one home and one away.  Teams do not play teams in other groups.  The top two clubs advance based on record, where three points are awarded per win, one per draw.  Ties in the standings during the First and Second rounds are resolved as follows:

Goal differential.  That is, goals scored minus goals allowed.


Goals scored.


Head-to-head results.


Coin toss.


Second Round.  Usually January/Febraury through March.  The 16 clubs are again broken out into groups of four, except that no two teams from the group will again be paired.  The format of the First Round is repeated to produce a final eight. 


Knockout Rounds.  Usually March to April.  The quarterfinal and semifinal rounds are two-game home-and-home series where the better aggregate advances. 


The Final is a single game winner-take-all in late May.

The groups in the First and Second Round are populated as follows.


The clubs are stratified into pools according to their strength and/or past history in such competitions -- the top eight are in Pool A, the next eight in Pool B, etc.


Each group is drawn, one team from each pool, in lottery fashion.


However, there are restrictions.  One group may not have two clubs from the same country, for example.  The Second Rounds groups cannot contain two teams from the same group in the First Round.

6.  The UEFA Cup

The UEFA Cup is a Cup competition that matches several hundred clubs together.  The competition begins in late summer and runs all the way through May.  Like the Qualification rounds of the Champions League, teams are injected into a particular round of the tournament according to seed.

One unique thing about the UEFA Cup is that certain teams eliminated from the UEFA Champions League are retained in the UEFA Cup.  These are normally the third-placed clubs in the First and Second Rounds, who are then inserted into the Cup at about the midway point.  The irony, of course, is that a team that does too well can be knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, yet a lesser club can do mediocre in the League and go on to win the Cup.  Don't believe that's ever happened, but it is an odd possibility to say the least.

7.  The European Championships (EURO)

UEFA also runs its own mini-World Cup, where each national federation puts forth a team of its best players to battle for European supremacy.  The European Championships are played opposite the World Cup (meaning that while the World Cup runs in 2002, 2006, 2010,... the EURO competition goes in 2004, 2008, 2012).

EURO is a two-year competition with three stages -- a group stage, a qualification stage, and the finals.  The group and qualifying stages end with 16 countries who enter the finals.  Normally, the host automatically qualifies for the final, so 15 slots are up for grabs.


Group Stage.  UEFA's fifty-plus federations are divided into a number of groups.  For EURO 2004, it was ten groups of five.  The teams in each group play all other teams twice, one home and one away, over the course of a year-and-a-half.  Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw.  The group winner automatically qualifies for the EURO finals.


Qualifying Stage.  This is a second-chance for the runners-up in each group.  The second place teams are paired off in a draw, and these pairings compete in a single two-game series with the winner qualifying for the EURO finals.


Finals.  This is a major tournament played over a three-to-four week period in the summer.

Group Stage.  The teams are seeded in four groups of four teams.  Each team plays each other team once.  After the three games are played, the top two in each group advance to the knockout rounds.


Knockout Rounds -- Quarterfinal, Semifinal, and Final.  These are single-elimination games.  Draws in each game are resolved by thirty minutes of extra time (sudden death, first goal wins), followed if necessary by a penalty kick shootout.

8.  The World Cup Competition

The FIFA World Cup runs the same two-year-long qualification and Finals system as the EURO.  However, the qualification for the FIFA World Cup Finals are run entirely by UEFA.  FIFA awards a number of slots in the 32-team Final to UEFA, and UEFA hosts a Group Stage and Qualifying Stage competition to field those clubs.

The one additional step to the World Cup process is that FIFA may award UEFA 13-"and-a-half" slots.  What this means is that UEFA will qualify 13 teams on its own, and then offer one additional team to face off against a team from another continent for a 14th slot.  For example, in 2002, Iran from Asia faced Australia from Oceania for one of the slots.

9. International Friendlies

Not all international matches are part of a sanctioned competition.  Occasionally, UEFA reserves dates to permit the member nations to play practice games against each other.  These are called "friendly" matches, although past history has shown that these can be very competitive, even un-friendly.  UEFA does have the right to impose penalties against players and federations for misconduct during these games.

10.  Other Competitions

UEFA also hosts junior and women's competitions.  The junior competitions are typically under-21, under-19, and under-17, and are held as an international competition during the late spring or summer.  The national federations sanction junior leagues at these age groups, but no higher than local or district level.  That is, there is not a "Premier League" for junior players ordinarily.  However, there are plenty of camps and other venues where the federations can choose the players for their national squads.

Women's soccer competitions tend to be very limited, with each country holding a national league with a small number of teams, and most local clubs hosting women's teams when enough ladies are available to play.

What is not done is college competitions.  College athletics are strictly intramural in Europe.

(C) 2004 Tom Galvin

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