A Guide to Understanding European Soccer (a.k.a. Football)

Europe’s Super Bowl, the UEFA Champions League Final, is set for Saturday with an epic all England clash between the Liverpool Reds and Tottenham Hotspurs. But despite being the most watched sport in the World, European Football, aka Soccer, has yet to hit relevancy in Canada.


Five years ago, I decided I would give European soccer—or football, as they (correctly) call it across the pond—a chance. I’ve always loved watching the FIFA World Cup for its atmosphere, competition, pace of play and vuvuzelas (remember those?), so when the 2014 FIFA World Cup wrapped, it felt only natural to dive into football on a larger scale.

At the time, soccer was the only major sport I did not follow intensely, though it wasn’t for a lack of effort. I, like many others who were interested in getting into the sport, was simply confused. You see, unlike the four major North American sporting leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL), the best players in European soccer don’t play in the same league or country, so I never knew which league to watch. To make matters even more complicated, there are many different domestic and European trophies (i.e. Europa League, FA Community Shield and Super Cup) that teams are competing for. To me, European soccer was like algebra or physics: a concept that was just too confusing to grasp.

As a result, I turned to Major League Soccer (MLS), which has grown enormously over the past decade with many (old) soccer legends like Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimović joining from Europe. MLS also has the Vancouver Whitecaps, which I could support from home. I found attending Whitecaps games extremely enjoyable, but, overall, MLS wasn’t enough for my sports-fanatics self. Stadiums were mostly half-empty, and talented players tended to flee the league or get transferred as soon as they gained prominence (come back Alphonso Davies!). I find the MLS a lot like the CFL, Canadian Idol or Superstore branded groceries: all lesser versions (yeah, I said it) of their American or international counterparts.

I wanted to watch the best in soccer (i.e. the European version!), but I didn’t know where to start. I had so many unanswered questions: what league should I follow? Who will be my team? What’s the difference between the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League? A few years ago I decided to do a deep-dive on the sport by joining soccer-related subreddits, talking to my long-lost British cousins and watching Bend It Like Beckham…FIVE times. I came out of my intensive research with many answers. At last, I understood it all.

Here is the cliff notes version of what I found:

There Are Many Soccer Leagues

Europe and Asia have many different soccer leagues. Think of a country (other than Wales) in either of those continents, and it probably has a league of its own. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the five main juggernauts: Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy), Bundesliga (Germany) and France Ligue 1 (France).

I know what you’re probably thinking (“That’s a lot of leagues!”), but the two most popular and competitive ones are the Premier League and La Liga. Each one of these leagues has 20 teams in them, and the team with the most points at the end of the season wins the league’s trophy. There are no playoff games—winners are chosen based on who has accumulated the most points over the course of a season. This can be good and bad.

Last year, for example, Manchester City F.C. won the Premier League weeks before the season actually ended, which proved extremely anticlimactic. This has proven to be an issue among North American fans, who have grown accustomed to playoff games and rounds (like in MLS) that determine a winner. Thanks to the Premier League and La Liga’s point system, however, there tend to be no fluky, undeserving winners who take championships by getting lucky in an elimination game (I’m looking at you, New York Giants). In Europe, the best team in a given season wins the league.

La Liga is dominated by Lionel Messi, who is arguably the greatest soccer player in the world. Here’s a quick summary on the man in case you’re unfamiliar with him: he is fast and relatively short (5’7″); possesses wizardly footwork; and can score from anywhere on the pitch (pitch is the fancy word for field). One of the world’s highest paid athletes, Messi plays for a Barcelona squad that has dominated its Spanish league for decades.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Italian club Juventus, has long been Messi’s arch rival, and their fanbases are often at one another’s throats. For me, Messi and Ronaldo are comparable to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant: James and Messi make their teammates better, and are more consistent and fun to watch; Bryant and Ronaldo have more championships (and controversies) under their belts.

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At the moment, the Premier League is definitely the most competitive league, with Manchester City barely beating out Liverpool this season. For more info, I’d highly recommend the entertaining docu-series All or Nothing: Manchester City, which sheds some light on how bonkers the Premier League is in England.

Relegation and Champions League

There is a spicy twist in European soccer, which differentiates it from its North American counterpart. In every European league, the bottom three teams in every season are relegated to a lower ranked league in their respective country. That’s right…more leagues! These lower ranked leagues are a lot like Division 2 college sports. In each country, teams that place top three in their lower ranked division two leagues, have a chance to get a promotion to La Liga or the Premier League.

Each season, the top four finishing teams in all the major European leagues get to play in next years UEFA Champions League. The Champions League also takes place during the year and these teams that finish in the top four have to play extra games throughout their season, with league games happening during the weekend and Champions league matches on the weekday.

The Champions League follows a similar format to the World Cup. The top teams around Europe get put into groups and the winners of the round-robin group stage enter the knockout round. But wait, there’s a spicier twist to these knockout round. Each knockout round sees two competing teams playing against each other twice. Their scores from both games are aggregated, and the team with the higher point total moves forward to the next round. (If there is a tie, the team with more away goals wins.) However, aggregate scoring is thrown to the gutter in the championship round—here, only one game is played. This year for the first time ever, it will be an all England match-up (Liverpool vs Tottenham). Overall, Spain leads the world with 18 Champions League Final trophies, with Real Madrid winning four of the last five finals.

So consider this a 100-level introductory course on European soccer. In the next lesson, I will delve into the FA Cup, Copa Del Rey and the other 78 trophies that soccer teams around the world compete for.