The Beginner’s Guide to European Soccer Leagues

Want to know your Serie A from your Ligue 1? Or why qualifying for the Champions League is good while making it to the Championship League is bad? To that end, we bring you this basic primer to the top European soccer competitions.

The English Premier League As the top-flight league in English soccer, the Premier League is the richest and most watched domestic soccer league in the world. Founded in 1992, after a number of the country’s top clubs decided to break away from the Football League to take advantage of a lucrative TV rights deal.

In the Premier League’s 38-match season, 20 teams compete over the course of the competition, which kicks off in August and ends in May. At season’s end, the team with the most points is crowned champion. The teams that finish second and third automatically qualify for the prestigious UEFA Champions League. The fourth place team goes into a playoff to qualify for Europe.

The teams in fifth, sixth and seventh place gain entry into Europe’s secondary competition, the Europa League. The bottom three teams are relegated down to the second division of English soccer, known as the Championship.

The Champions League Europe’s premier domestic club competition, the UEFA Champions League pits the top teams in the continent’s top leagues against one another. Countries are ranked on a coefficient based on performance with the leagues that perform the best awarded four spots in the Champions League and lesser performing leagues get three, or sometimes just two spots.

The Champions League group stage features eight groups of four competing in round robin format. The top two teams from each group progress to the round of 16 knockout phases of the competition. The last eight make the quarterfinals with the last four teams playing in the semis. At the end of the competition, which gets underway in August, the two remaining teams compete in the final with the winner crowned champions of Europe.

The FA Cup Officially known as the Football Association Cup, the FA Cup is the oldest association soccer competition in the world. The annual knockout competition is open to any eligible club from the Premier League down to the 10th level of the English football league system.

The FA Cup consists of 12 randomly drawn rounds, followed by semi-finals and the final. The early rounds for qualifying feature teams from lower and non-league competitions. Teams that progress compete against professional and semi-pro teams from Leagues One and Two. Premier League and Championship teams enter into the draw for the Third Round when the competition truly gets underway.

The “magic of the FA Cup” is that it offers lower league and even non-league clubs the chance to compete against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. It is not uncommon in the Cup to see a lower division team become a “giant killer” by knocking one of the big clubs out. Winning the FA Cup automatically qualifies a team for the Europa League and the Community Shield, a pre-season match against the winner of the Premier League.

The EFL Cup England is unique among European soccer powers as the only major soccer nation with two domestic cups. The EFL Cup, often known as simply the League Cup, is the secondary cup competition in England. The knockout competition is open to any club in the top four divisions of English soccer.

The League Cup was first held in 1960 and has a shorter run than most continental club competitions; running from August and concluding in February. The Cup is played out over seven rounds and features single leg ties up until the semifinals. The final is held each year at London’s Wembley Stadium.

The Bundesliga The Bundesliga is the top-flight in German domestic club competition. Like the Premier League, it features a promotion and relegation system with the bottom two teams going down to the second division and the third-bottom team contesting a playoff to remain in the league.

While there are only 18 teams in the Bundesliga, the top four each season will qualify for the Champions League, a testament to the strength of the league, which is currently one of the best in Europe in terms of quality.

Traditionally, the Bundesliga has been dominated by Bayern Munich; however, in the last decade we’ve also seen teams like Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart crowned champions. The Bundesliga runs from August through May with a month-long break in the winter.

Serie A The top league in Italian soccer, Serie A was not long ago, considered the best domestic league in the world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Italian clubs like AC Milan, Juventus and Inter were the elite clubs in Europe. However, in the past few years financial constraints and an infusion of cash into leagues like the Premier League have left Serie A behind somewhat.

As Serie A has fallen down a rung or two, it’s been dominated by Juventus, the only club in the league to own its own stadium, which gives it financial leverage to not only dominate Italy, but compete with the big clubs from Europe’s other top leagues in the Champions League. Juve have won the Serie A championship, also known as The Scudetto, five seasons in a row and are on track to win a sixth, despite challenges from resurgent clubs like Napoli and Roma.

While Italian soccer is still some of the best in the world and Serie A’s decline has been arrested, the unfortunate reality is that, until other teams can achieve the kind of financial independence enjoyed by Juventus, the Turin outfit is likely to remain the dominant club in Italy.

La Liga Spain’s top-flight competition generally boils down to a two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The two giants of world soccer have owned the La Liga crown since the turn of the millennium with the exception of Valencia winning the title in 2003 and Atletico Madrid in 2014.

However, in recent years we’re starting to see the Real/Barça hegemony challenged somewhat by teams like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. La Liga also follows the 20-team format with the bottom three teams being relegated every season and the top four teams qualifying for the Champions League.

Ligue 1 French top-flight soccer has been on the rise in recent years. While Ligue 1 has long been regarded as one of Europe’s “big five” leagues, the emergence of clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco has seen the French league’s profile grow, particularly in Europe. In recent seasons, the 20-team league has been dominated by PSG but contenders like Monaco, Nice and Marseille are helping to make the French league one of Europe’s most competitive.

Like the Premier League, the top four teams in France qualify for the Champions League. The bottom two are automatically relegated with the third-bottom team entering a playoff to stay in the top-flight.

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