Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Football(Soccer) Works: A Guide for Americans

So Chris has asked me a few times about the setup of soccer, and how all of the many competitions are formed. This is my attempt to lay out a generic setup that is basically followed by every club team and national team throughout the world. There is plenty of variety in different countries, of course, but these are the basics. I'll start with the club teams.

LEAGUE: Every soccer country that even pretends to be serious has its own league. In most of the world, this is ten to twenty teams, who play each other two to four times, for a total of around forty games. In Latin America, they will often split the number of games in half and declare two champions a year. Some countries, like ours, have a post-season to determine the winner, but none of the top leagues do this.

Most countries have promotion and relegation, often called pro/rel, where you can move up a league or down a league based on how well you finished the previous season. For example, if this was in place here, the AAA baseball champion would be in the big leagues the next season, and the Nationals misery would only last one more year as they'd be demoted. This leads to an incredible 24 tiers of football in England.

England: Premier League
Argentina: Primera División Argentina (two leagues per year)

CUP: Most countries with a league also have a cup tournament. This is a single elimination tournament that lasts the entire year and can comprise of teams from almost any league in the country. Almost anyone can form a team to enter. Just to make a point of this, I could round up the readers of this blog and form a team, and theoretically we could win this cup if we never lost a game. That is pretty cool. A few years ago an amateur team from Dallas made the last 16 before losing to the LA Galaxy.

England: FA Cup
Argentina: None
USA: Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

CONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Every continent (Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania) has a tournament to declare a continental champion. Through various methods, teams that do well in their league, and sometimes who win their cup, are entered into this tournament the following year. For example, the top four English teams (Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal) will play in next year's tournament. Every continent is different, but eventually one winner is determined. The European Champion's League is the biggest title in all of club soccer.

Europe: UEFA Champion's League
South America: Copa Libertadores
North America: CONCACAF Champion's League

SECONDARY CONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP: This is similar to the continental championship, but basically takes the next best teams. Cup winner usually get automatic qualification into this tournament. In England, last years fifth and sixth place finishers, as well as their cup winner are entered into the following year's tournament. Think of it like the NIT, but back when only 32 teams made the NCAA tournament, and so it still meant something, especially to the smaller teams.

Europe: Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup)
South America: Copa Sudamerica
North America: None

LEAGUE CUP: Some countries have a second cup that only the top leagues can enter. This is rarely as prestigious as the main cup, but still, it's silverware, and it's nice to get your hands on.

England: League Cup (aka Carling Cup)
Argentina: None
USA: None

SUPERCUP: The previous year's cup winner and league winner play a glorified pre-season game, which opens the season. A trophy is awarded, and nobody turns it down. This is the least prestigious trophy, but it does mean a new season has started!

England: Community Shield
Argentina: None
USA: None

CONTINENTAL SUPERCUP: Some continents have the winner of their two main continental competitions play each other in a one off game. It's not taken too seriously, but it's still nice to win.

Europe: SuperCup
South America: Recopa Sudamericana
North America: None

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: Every year, the FIFA Club World Cup is contested between the winners of all six continental champions. It is a quick single elimination tournament that has always featured the South American and European champions in the final. It is a very big deal in South America, and is a nuisance for the European team. Still, it's considered poor form for the European team to lose it, and it never hurts to declare yourself a world champion.

So, how could Manchester United have won seven titles last season? They won the English League, English League Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and English SuperCup, but lost the finals of the continental championship, exited from the FA Cup in the semi-finals, and lost the European SuperCup to Zenit St. Petersburg. So, only four. Can any team ever do a clean sweep?

Okay, now for the national teams. This will be faster:

WORLD CUP: The big one. Every nation tries to qualify, and each continent has its own qualification method.

CONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Every continent has its own title. Most are once every four years. Some, like in Europe, are almost as big as the World Cup.

Europe: Euro (even numbered years that are not World Cup years)
South America: Copa América (year after World Cup)
North America: Gold Cup (odd numbered years, but only one that is year after World Cup is really taken seriously)
Africa: Cup of Nations (every two years, but might be changing)
Asia: Asian Cup (year after World Cup)
Oceania: Nations Cup (even numbered years that are not World Cup years)

CONFEDERATION'S CUP: Every four years, one year before the World Cup, the host nation gets to test drive the car. South Africa learned that they still have some work to do. The six continental champions, World Cup champion, and host are all invited, for a total of eight teams. This is often not taken that seriously until you lose to the United States, at which point you are terribly embarrassed and wish you'd taken it more seriously. Just like the Copa Americana, it is generally pretty up in the air until Brazil decides to actually try, and then they win another trophy. This year they started trying at half time of the final.

FRIENDLIES: You may hear of an international game called a Friendly. This is an exhibition game.

Well, hope that was enlightening. You can see how a player can get tired of playing so many games. I tried to keep to the basic, but it's forever entertaining as every country does its own thing, and curiosities abound. I hope that cleared up some of your questions on this strange world.

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