European Club Football Primer

As the football season winds down in Europe, thought it would be a good time to explain how most of the leagues operate.  Keep in mind this a general outline of how most leagues and competions work.  It is by no means an exhaustive account but hopefully it will enlighten one on the basics.      

Domestic Leagues

Each country has its own domestic league which runs roughly from late August until May.  Most games are played on the weekend.  The most prestigious leagues are in England (Premiereship), Spain (Primera Division), Italy (Serie A) and Germany (Bundesliga).  

Each club plays 1 game at home and 1 away against all of the other clubs in their league (ex 38 games in Premiership).   Teams receive 3 points for a win and 1 point for a tie with the winner accumulating the most points like hockey.  The top 3 or 4 clubs qualify for the UEFA Champions League the next year and 5-7ish qualify for the UEFA Cup.  The bottom 2-3 clubs get relegated meaning they are sent down a league.  Each country has several tiers of professional leagues much like minor league baseball except there are no real affiliations between clubs.  The top clubs from the lower leagues are promoted to the next level.   

Domestic Cups

Each country has some type of cup competition open to clubs from all or most divisions like the FA Cup in England or the Copa del Rey in Spain.   The formats vary slightly but mostly consist of a 2 leg (home and away games) tie between clubs with the winner determined by aggregate score after the 2 games.  Then there is usually a lottery-type draw where all the winners are randomly placed against each other.  Most countries don’t institute an NCAA type bracket until the quarterfinals.  Most cup finals are 1 game playoffs played at a neutral stadium like Wembley in England.  These competitions usually throw up some good upsets and are taken quite seriously by clubs and fans alike.   

UEFA Champions League

Clubs have to qualify for this most prestigious competition by either winning their domestic league in smaller countries (ie Switzerland) or finishing in the top 3 or 4 in bigger countries (ie England).  There are 3 rounds of qualifying in the summer where the champions of smaller countries compete against each other (and the lower finishers in the big leagues) to make it into the final 32 team tournament that starts in September.  Games are played on several Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 20:45 CET from September until May. 

The format for the tournament is as follows:  Group Stage (September-December), 1st knockout round, quarterfinals, semifinals and final. 

Group Stage

The 32 teams are seeded into 8 #1 seeds, 8 #2 seeds, etc.  Then 1 team from each seed level is selected and placed into a 4 team group.  This is to avoid having big clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea (#1 seeds usually) being placed into the same group.  Also at this group stage, no teams from the same country (ie Barcelona and Real Madrid) are in the same group.   

Each club plays the other 3 clubs in their group home and away.  After 6 matches, the top 2 teams (on the point system) advance to the knockout round.  3rd place gets a UEFA Cup spot while 4th is eliminated. 

1st Knockout Round

There is a random draw where the 8 1st place teams are pitted against the 8 2nd place teams with 2 stipulations:  teams from the same group will not play each other nor will teams from the same country.  Ties are decided over 2 matches (home and away) with aggregate goals deciding the winner.  In case of a tie, then the team with the most away goals wins thus making away goals vital and encouraging away teams to attack.  If teams are still tied, then there is 30 minutes of extra-time followed by the dreaded penalty kicks. 

Quarterfinals and Semifinals

8 winners are randomly drawn against each other but again 2 teams from the same country shall not play each other in the quarterfinals.  Same home and away format as last round.  Only change is there is now a bracket in place and teams know their road to the final.  Also, teams from same country are finally allowed to square off in the semifinals.


Final is 1 game with extra time and penalties used to determine a winner in a tie.  It is hosted at various stadiums around Europe (last year Paris, this year Athens) so there is always a slight chance some club could play at home for the Final.


TTL finds it best to let UEFA itself explain this competition.  Early stages are a real mess before final 32 engage in traditional two match knockout competition until 1 game final at a neutral site.  Not as prestigious as CL, but its a pretty big trophy for teams to win. 

Hope this helps one to understand European football a bit better.  It’s great fun. 


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