European Soccer for Americans

The Champions League Final is this Saturday. If you’re from anywhere other than America, there’s a good chance you know exactly what that is. It is the most viewed sporting event of the year with more than 300 million people expected to watch. The Champions League is basically a yearly tournament of the best European soccer teams – teams that don’t get to play each other otherwise. Me being American, I only learned this in recent years. I found European soccer quite confusing, so let me see if I can explain it here to my fellow countrymen. I probably still don’t know all the ins and outs, but if you want to have a quick lesson in Euro Soccer, this is a good start. If you are European, this will come across as “bloody obvious”, so feel free to go read something more useful on the internet.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world. He’ll be playing in the Champions League Final on May 28, 2016.

Euro Soccer is confusing and hard to follow. Not the game itself, but the leagues and tournaments and schedules that make up a full year of soccer. Americans are used to city-based teams playing a regular season – as in “all baseball teams play 162 games starting in April and ending in October”. At the end of this regular season, it’s time for the post-season. Here, the teams with the best regular season record will be able to compete in what we call “Playoffs”. This is in effect a little tournament, and the 2 winners from the Playoffs go on to compete in the “Final” which will be either another little “best of 7” tournament, or a Super Bowl. A winner is declared and we can now wait for the next season to start. In European Soccer, things are not so straight forward.
Here goes…

You have city teams and you have national teams. Thus, the same players play for two different teams. No big deal so far. I mean, we have city basketball teams and those same players play on the US Olympic team, right? But the thing is, there is no just an international tournament every 4 years, it’s every two years for Europe. You have the European Cup every four years and the World Cup every four years – so on and off, that’s a major international tournament every two years. And the qualifying rounds for each start like more than a year in advance. This amounts to your city team sending it’s players over to the national team all the time. Your town heroes, your treasured warriors are playing for another team.

“Well, no big deal they’re playing for our country’s team.” No, sir. Players for city teams come from all over the world. Players from your national team come from your country. So, that means multi-million dollar, all-star, team-center players like Arjen Robben, who plays for Bayern Munchen (that’s German for Munich), has to take off every now and then to play for his home country’s team, Holland. What if he gets hurt? How will FC Bayern play without him? This is a big issue.

Back to city teams. Each country has like 3 divisions. It’s like the Majors and Minors of baseball. Division 1 is the majors and divisions 2 and 3 are the minors. City teams only play other teams in their own division in their own country. So, Division 1 is pretty much what everybody is watching. BUT, each year, there is the Champion’s League. The Champion’s League is a big tournament spanning most of the regular season. It’s where the top teams from each Division 1 league in each country get to play each other. Each country gets to send x number of teams depending on how big their country is (or something like that). Germany sends like 3 teams, ditto UK, France sends 2, I think, and Holland sends just one. Now the best city teams from Europe get to play each other and one victor is eventually crowned the best team in Europe – a team that is comprised of players from all over the world.

But again, this is a kind of pain in the ass. Your city team is trying to win the Division 1 title, but it has to stop its regular season play to go out and play in the Champion’s League tournament which spans like 6 months in total. Meanwhile the teams just under them in the rankings may not have the Champions’ League obligation (though they wish they did) and will be all the fresher for it as they continue the regular season unfettered. One day Cristiano Ronaldo is playing for Real Madrid in La Liga (the Div 1 of Spain), the next day he plays for Real Madrid in the Champion’s League, the next day he plays for the Portugal National team in an European Cup qualifier, and the next day for the Portugal National team in a World Cup qualifier. As Americans we are not used to this, so it must be bad.

What remains good is soccer as a sport. I grew up on baseball and football and never knew a thing about the most popular sport in the world. Ironically, it took a video game to get me into it. It’s actually fantastic once we get into it and recognize the plays and strategies.

Saturday, Real Madrid plays Atletico Madrid in the Champion’s League final, as they did in 2014. This is the European equivalent of the Yankees and the Mets in the World Series or the Jets and the Giants in the Super Bowl. The game starts at 2:45 EST (I know, what kind of start time is that?). Get your snacks and beers all queued…I mean lined up, because the only commercials are at half time. Enjoy!