Friday, December 5, 2008

European Football Introduction

Leagues, divisions, domestic cups, league cups, European cups - European football can be a difficult game to follow.
In fact, it can be down right confusing for the American sports fan used to a game like basketball, for example, when you have the regular season and then the playoffs and that's it. The eight best teams in each conference during the regular season make the playoffs, followed by the conference quarterfinals, semifinals, final and then league final.
European soccer, and most soccer leagues throughout the world, has a completely different way of doing things. Here's an example.
We'll start with English Premier League (EPL) which is currently thought of as the best soccer league in the world. The EPL itself features 20 teams. However, there are three leagues below the EPL - the Championship, League 1 and League 2 - which also operate in England's Football League. Each of those three leagues has 24 teams, for a total of 92 teams including the teams in the EPL.
Here's the catch. Each season teams can be relegated from their league, or promoted to the next league depending on where they finish. For example, if Wigan Athletic finishes the 2008-2009 season in 18th, 19th or 20th place in the EPL, they will drop down to the Championship, and so on down the line. Even the bottom teams from League 2 could drop out of the league all together and be replaced by non-league teams that finish at the top of their division.
There are many regional divisions throughout England featuring hundreds of teams all of which have the ability to rise up through the ranks and enter The Football League.
So again, a team like Wigan could find itself last in the EPL this year, last in the Championship next year, last in League 1 in two years, last in League 2 in three years and be right out of the league.
Imagine if that happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates or Detroit Lions? That would provide some incentive for those teams to get their act together because they would be faced with losing all the TV and ad revenue they get from being in the top league.
Almost all of the Union of European Football Association's (UEFA) 53 leagues have the relegation/promotion system. The system goes hand in hand with the idea that there are no playoffs in Europe's top divisions, the regular season is everything. In American basketball, 16 of the league's teams make the playoff, so even with a decent regular season, it's possible to still get in the playoffs and make a run for a championship.
In soccer, teams are awarded three points for a win and one point for a draw during the season. There's also a balanced schedule in the EPL which gives it a sense of fairness. Each team plays the other 19 teams twice, home and away, for a total of 38 games. The team with the most points at the end of the season is the league champion.
That would seem to force a lot of teams into thinking they have nothing to play for since only one team wins the league, but that's where relegation comes into play, along with another incentive. In the EPL, the top four teams all qualify for the UEFA Champions League (CL).
The CL brings together the league champions, along with second, third and fourth place teams from some of the better leagues, for a huge (and lucrative) European Tournament. This is where the best teams from Spain, Germany, England, etc. battle each other to determine a true European champion.
In 2008-2009 league play, teams are competing for spots in the 2009-2010 Champions League. Earning a CL spot makes a team more attractive, because top players and coaches know that the team will be playing in the CL the next season against Europe's top clubs in high-profile games.
The Champions League runs in the same time frame - August to May - as most of the major European leagues. CL games are usually in the middle of the week, while most league games are on the weekend.
There's another European tournament, called the UEFA Cup, which is a secondary tournament to the CL. In this case, second and third place teams from lower leagues, along with fourth and fifth place teams from the top leagues, make the UEFA Cup. In the EPL, the fifth place team makes the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Cup also features teams that have been eliminated at difference stages of the Champions League. An American equivalent would be if a team was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in college basketball, it would drop down to the NIT.
The UEFA Cup also runs during the middle of the week, usually earlier in the week than the CL or in different weeks. The UEFA Cup also features more teams (133) whereas the CL tries to stay as exclusive as possible with only 76 teams competing from Europe's 53 leagues.
Another way to qualify for the UEFA Cup is to win a country's domestic cup. Domestic cups such as England's Football Association (FA) Cup are tournaments that usually run during the country's season. Just like the European cups (tournaments), they are usually played in the middle of the week. Winning an FA Cup is nearly as prestigious as winning a league trophy, especially for teams that don't compete in the top division of a league.
In England, hundreds of teams enter the FA Cup. Many of them are not in England's Football League, but instead are semi-pro clubs and even lower. The smaller teams enter the tournament at the beginning stages, and then more and more teams enter as it goes forward. Eventually the teams from The Football League, including the EPL, enter the fray. This creates the chance for a very small local team that has survived to take on one of England's giants in a David vs. Goliath match-up.
England has another tournament, called The Football League Cup, which features just the 92 teams in the league. This tournament isn't as prestigious as the older FA Cup, but it does provide another way for an English team to get into the UEFA Cup.
The sixth and seventh place team in the league can also get into the UEFA Cup if the FA Cup and League Cup are won by teams that have already qualified for European competition in other ways. UEFA also has a Fair Play table where teams that show they have avoided large numbers of fouls, ejections, etc. can qualify.
Got all that? Probably not, it's a long and complicated system. But the best way to learn is to become a fan and follow your favorite player, team or league. "The Beautiful Game" is worth your time and energy.

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