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Your Definitive Guide to European Soccer Leagues

Everything you need to know and more

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As someone who has followed both soccer and basketball in my life, I can understand how daunting it could be for an American to get into the sport. I’m English, so I probably shouldn’t even be referring to it as soccer, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for you and clarity’s sake.

 

The NBA, for example, has a structure that’s relatively simple to understand. At the end of an 82-game season, the eight best teams (based on wins and losses record) in each conference battle it out in a classic tournament-style structure. Probably the most confusing thing about the playoffs for me to understand was the way the first seed plays the eighth seed, the second plays the seventh, and so on, which is still a simple concept.

 

I’m going to be honest with you now: soccer is probably more complicated than that. But I can also tell you that there’s a reason why it’s the biggest sport in the world with an estimated 3.5 billion fans worldwide - it’s well worth the trouble.

 

If you’re reading this, I assume you already have at least a moderate level of interest in soccer, so there’s no need to cover the absolute basic rules. But it can be incredibly hard for Americans to understand the way that the sport truly functions in an entirely different continent. But not to worry. To make things a little bit easier for you, I have written your definitive guide to European soccer leagues. Even that requires an asterisk because there are dozens of soccer leagues in Europe recognized by UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) that you could follow if you were a devoted enough fan. You can view a list of UEFA’s member associations here, with each country owning multiple leagues. Even narrowing things down, there are dozens of leagues part of the official European Leagues sports organization. Instead, we’ll keep things as simple as possible and focus on the five most prominent leagues in Europe. Get ready for the kick-off.

Premier League

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We’ll start at the top. The Premier League is an English league that is considered the best in the world by far. Best is subjective, of course, but essentially before a season starts, the English Premier League (or the EPL) has the most teams that have a good chance of lifting the trophy. Currently, that includes Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham.

 

In the EPL, each of the 20 teams plays each other twice (once at home, once away) for a total of 38 games in a season (which lasts from August to May). A win is worth three points, a draw is worth one point for both teams, and a loss is worth zero. The team with the most points at the end of the season is the winner.

 

As mentioned above, there are a total of 20 teams in the EPL, and there have been since 1995—but the teams have not always been the same. The Premier League uses a relegation system every season, wherein the three lowest-ranked teams after a season are essentially demoted to the EFL Championship (or just the Championship for short). Think of this as the three teams with the lowest W-L record in the NBA having to go to the G League. Of course, to balance things out, three teams need to be added back to the EPL. The top two teams from the Championship are promoted to the League, while the third, fourth, fifth and sixth teams battle it out in a playoff series for the third and final spot. This system helps add a little bit of drama to the bottom where things are otherwise bleak for the lower-ranking teams and their respective fanbases. Every league mentioned here functions in the same way.

 

Even if you’re a beginner when it comes to soccer, you might have known of this league for a while because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s run in it with Manchester United from 2003 to 2009. To many, he was the best player in the world during that time. In his last three seasons in the EPL, Ronaldo helped United win three consecutive seasons (the most that this trophy has ever been won consecutively), each time edging out the win against Chelsea.

 

Though United (who boast 13 EPL wins) and Chelsea (boasting five League wins) had their rivalry, you might have noticed that I named two different teams both with “Manchester” in their names; City and United. That’s where the classic Manchester Derby comes in. In soccer, a derby is where two teams with a similar geographical location play each other. So in the NBA, the Clippers and the Lakers games are derbies, along with the Nets and the Knicks. United and City do not share a home ground like the aforementioned teams, but the rivalry is still one of the best in soccer. In the EPL, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham and Crystal Palace are all London teams, so anytime one of them plays the other, it’s a London Derby.

 

If we’re discussing the history of the Premier League, the Top Four have to be mentioned. Throughout the 2000s, the league was dominated by Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United. In that decade, outside of them, only four teams qualified for the Champions League. Things are a little different now with other clubs in the mix, but this period was one to remember, with legends like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas all taking part.

La Liga

LaLiga European Soccer
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In Europe, second to the Premier League is La Liga (also known as Liga BBVA), Spain’s equivalent. Founded in 1929, this league boasts some of the best clubs and players in the world. The league functions in the same way as the English Premier League in that it utilizes the same double round-robin format, the same point system and the same promotion and relegation system. Spain’s equivalent to the EFL Championship is known as La Liga 2 or Segunda División.

 

As mentioned before, La Liga is home to some of the better players ever to kick a soccer ball. Though great teams like Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla have been competitive in it for decades, there’s no question that the league’s two giants are Barcelona and Real Madrid. Of the 88 seasons played in league history, both teams combined have won an astonishing 59 of them (with Madrid at 33 and Barca at 26). That’s 67 percent of the seasons won by just two clubs. That’s dominance.

 

Naturally, this dominance has given birth to the most iconic rivalry in soccer—El Clásico. This is the name of the derby between Madrid and Barca. Every time they play each other, the soccer world tunes in, no matter what your team is. It even goes as far as Spanish politics getting involved, with the two sides being perceived as opposing political sides. Both teams are the most followed on social media. In 2019, Forbes estimated Barcelona’s value at $4.02 billion, with Madrid at $4.24 billion, putting them in the number four and number three spots respectively on the list of Most Valuable Sports Teams. Incredibly, of the team’s 244 competitive matches to date, they’re both equal in wins at 96. This is a storybook rivalry.

 

The clash only became more iconic when Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009 to go to Real Madrid in a then-record move worth £80 million. This meant that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were now in the same league. Those two have long been considered the two best soccer players in the world and even of all time, with hundreds of millions worldwide debating who was first and who was second. This is Mayweather and Pacquiao, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Jay-Z and Nas. Since the inception of soccer’s equivalent of the MVP award (but for every league in the world), of the ten awards given, Ronaldo and Messi have won nine.

 

La Liga is the home of so many more great players, even in Barcelona and Real Madrid themselves. Many of the team’s best Spanish players have come together to play international soccer at the highest level over the years. But if you’re getting into La Liga, this is the rivalry to follow.

Bundesliga

Bundesliga European Soccer
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With England and Spain covered, the next best league in Europe is Bundesliga, German’s top league. Although in most ways the league functions in the same ways as the ones above (with the same system of promotion, relegation, points and games in a season), one key difference is that this league consists of just 18 clubs, as opposed to the EPL and La Liga’s 20.

 

By far, the most successful club in the league’s history is Bayern Munich, who, at the time of writing, has won the last seven seasons. The second most successful club is Borussia Dortmund (also known as BVB). The crucial game in German soccer is any time these two play each other, dubbed Der Klassiker. There has been some dispute on whether these games should be considered classics, due to them being devoid of much historical context, but regardless, there’s little to no debate on who the best two clubs in German soccer are.

 

Bayern’s dominance is interesting because while it has meant their fans worldwide have been satisfied, things have become repetitive and monotonous for others. The Germans have an incredible grasp on finding and developing homegrown talent, but it’s Bayern that mostly gets a hold of the talent. Think of this like the dominance of the Warriors making the NBA Playoffs a bore for some. This is a recurring theme for our final European leagues too.

Serie A

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Officially founded in 1898, Serie A is Italy’s offering of its top soccer clubs. Following the same format as all leagues mentioned above, teams that are relegated at the end of each season play in Serie B.

 

The top clubs in this league are Juventus, A.C. Milan and Internazionale (commonly referred to as Inter). Even though Italy boasts numerous classic names in soccer, similarly to Bundesliga, Serie A has been dominated by Juventus in recent years. Since 2011, Juventus has won every season. Juventus is the current home of Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín.

 

Naturally, as you might have guessed by now, Juventus is one half of the most prominent Italian derby. They come together with Milan for Il derby Dei Campioni (Derby Of The Champions). However, there are multiple smaller derbies in Italian soccer, which make Serie A fun. Napoli and Roma, Inter and Milan and Genoa and Sampdoria are all some of the fiercest competitive games when it comes to the sport in Italy.

Ligue 1

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Finally, we have France’s premier league, Ligue 1. Just like all prior leagues, Ligue 1 seasons are 38 games long for clubs, and the team with the most points at the end of the season wins the L’Hexagoal, the name of the league’s trophy. The bottom three Ligue 1 teams are relegated to Ligue 2.

 

The number of championships each team in the league has won is a little bit deceiving here. The team with the most wins (ten) is AS Saint-Étienne, but they have not won a title since the 1980 to 1981 season. Next is Olympique de Marseille with nine wins, but they have had no wins from 2009 to 2010. In third place with eight wins is Paris Saint-Germain, usually shortened to PSG. This is the biggest and best club in the league, winning six of the seasons that took place in the 2010s.

 

The classic derby (Le Classique) in French soccer is the one between PSG and Marseille, who had their first meeting in 1971.

Champions League

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Now that we have the best five leagues in Europe out of the way, it’s time for me to explain how they interact at the highest level. Every year, the top four teams in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A, and the top three teams in Ligue 1 (along with other top clubs from different European countries and leagues) qualify for the UEFA Champions League (UCL). The UCL is by far the most prestigious club competition in European soccer.

 

The tournament begins with 32 teams, divided into groups of four. Teams from the same nation are never in the same group. Within their groups, they play the double round-robin format with a points system, and the top two teams from each group are entered into the next round.

 

Round two starts with 16 teams. Here, the winners in one group will play the runners-up of another group. They will play each other twice; once at home, once away from home. It is the team that scores more goals over the course of the two games that advance to the next round. This is where the aggregate score comes into play. Listen close because this could get complicated. If at the end of both games, both Team A and Team B have scored five goals, but Team B scored more of their goals at Team A’s home stadium, they win. Away goals count for more. If away goals are also even, teams will play extra time.

 

The UCL final is just one game played at a neutral stadium; in other words, a stadium that is fair for both teams and neither of their home grounds.

 

The winner is presented with the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, with each player on the winning team getting a gold medal and each player on the team in second place getting a silver medal. One of the prizes in this tournament is money, with set amounts earned for each type of accomplishment. Getting to the preliminary qualifying round wins you the equivalent of $261,000 while winning the finals gets you a whopping $21.5 million. Under this structure, a club can earn close to $100 million for winning. While this probably sounds colossal, remember that everything’s relative. In 2017, Neymar went from Barcelona to PSG for $255 million.

 

There are, of course, other cups and tournaments that European teams can win, but the Champions League is by far the most coveted.

 

All in all, those are the basics of European soccer. If you made it to the end, I hope next time you run into a soccer fan, you can get your way through a conversation with them and probably surprise them with your knowledge. If you want some extra points, refer to it as football.

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