Sep 152014

I wanted to make a post about how to watch soccer on TV, but I realized that if you were unfamiliar with the world of soccer it might be useful to get a primer first.

Soccer is a unique sport, in that it has greater worldwide interest than any other sport, and it has a structure set up to allow competition on many different levels and in many different ways. I will try to summarize these for you.

Club vs. Country

The first thing to understand about soccer is the distinction between “club” teams and national teams. Club teams are teams that play in a certain location, and are free to hire whomever they want (and can afford) to play for them. In American sports we would consider teams like the Houston Rockets or the Texans as club teams. The term club is used because, in most of the world, the historic origins of these teams are actual social clubs. Many teams still are social clubs, with memberships, and many of these clubs maintain teams in other sports besides soccer. And the term club is often used in their names, which is why you will see so many teams incorporate the letters FC in their name (Football Club). Others have names that indicate their wider scope, such as AC (Athletic Club). Clubs play in domestic leagues within their countries, along with domestic cup competitions, and the best ones will usually have some opportunity to play clubs from other countries in international tournaments

In contrast to that are national teams. National teams may only field players who are citizens of the country they play for, and except for special circumstances, a player can only ever play for one national team (even if they are eligible for more). National teams play in the World Cup, which they earn the right to enter through qualifications within their continental confederation, as well as championships of those continental confederations.

Continental Federations

The soccer world is split into 6 continental confederations, each of which runs a number of competitions:

  • CONCACAF – This is the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football. This is our confederation, and consists of three zones: North American (Canada, USA, and Mexico), Central American (Guatemala and Belize down to Panama), and the Caribbean (all the Caribbean island nations and territories, as well as three South American nations/territories of French Guiana, Guyana, and Surinam). CONCACAF oversees the Gold Cup, our regional championship of national teams held every two years, as well as the qualifiers for the World Cup, which whittles the 41 member teams down to the 3 or 4 who will make it to the World Cup. CONCACAF also oversees an annual tournament of the best club teams in the region, the CONCACAF Champions League.
  • CONMEBOL – This is a portmanteau of the Confederation Sudamericana de Futbol. The ten member countries of this federation are the ten nations of South America who are not CONCACAF members. CONMEBOL runs South American World Cup qualifying, which determines which 4 or 5 countries will qualify for the World Cup. They also oversee the world’s oldest international competition, the Copa America, which is usually held every four years. 2016 will be the 100th anniversary of this tournament, and to celebrate there will be a special edition played here in the US, with 6 CONCACAF countries joining the 10 CONMEBOL participants. On the club level, there is the Copa Libertadores, which features the best club teams from South America and Mexico, and the Copa Sudamericana, which is a 2nd tier tournament.
  • UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations has 54 members, which includes all the European nations (except the UK, which is broken down into England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), as well as Israel, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. UEFA runs the region’s world cup qualifiers to determine the 14-16 entrants to the World Cup, as well as a quadrennial European championship, the European Football Championship (Euro). On the club level is the UEFA Champions League, widely considered the best soccer in the world as it features the best teams from the best European leagues, which hire the world’s best players. They also run a 2nd tier club competition known as the Europa League.
  • CAF – The Confederation of African Football. In addition to narrowing down the 56 member nations to 5 World Cup entrants, CAF also oversees the regional tournament, the African Cup of Nations, held every two years. At the club level there is a CAF Champions League and a 2nd tier CAF Confederation Cup.
  • AFC – The Asian Football Confederation has 47 members—all the Asian countries who aren’t in UEFA, along with Australia and Guam. The AFC oversees qualifying to determine which 4/5 nations will make it to the World Cup, along with running the Asian Cup, a quadrennial tournament. At the club level is the AFC Champions League, which only sees the top 14 footballing nations enter, followed by the AFC Cup and the AFC President’s Cup.
  • OFC – The Oceanic Football Confederation consists of New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, and other Pacific Island nations. The 14 members compete in World Cup Qualifying to make it look fair, then send New Zealand to a playoff against another confederation’s country to see if they can make it to the World Cup. There is also an OFC Nations Cup. At the club level they oversee the OFC Champions League.

League Structure

In most of the world leagues are played with a schedule whereby every team plays every other team in their league home and away. The winner is the team that gets the most points (earning 3 points for a win and 1 point for a tie). There are no playoffs (the two most prominent exceptions being the US and Mexico). Most countries have multiple levels of play, much as baseball in the US. However, unlike baseball here, the top 2-4 teams from lower levels of play may be promoted to the next higher each season, while the bottom 2-4 may be relegated to lower levels of play. As you can imagine, promotion can be very exciting, while relegation is a terror for all fans, and even more so for the owners.

Domestic Cups

In addition to leagues, most countries have a domestic cup competition. This is usually either a single-elimination tournament (think NCAA basketball) or home-and-away two game elimination. The interesting thing about cups is they allow lower division teams the chance to play against and even knock off higher division teams.

Other Interesting Differences from American Sports Leagues

Ironically, in sport America is the most “socialist”, while the rest of the world tends to be “laissez faire capitalist”. By which I mean that in all the major American sports there is some sort of limitation on a team to spend money (salary caps etc) and some sort of method to allow the worst teams to rebound (draft picks going in reverse order to league finish). In much of the rest of the world there are no limitations to the amount of money a team can spend on players, and there is no draft structure at all, as clubs have youth programs that go all the way down to U11 and U12 or lower to find their next generation of talent. This results in most leagues being dominated by a few strong teams (ie Bayern Munich in Germany) and if a new team is to become a championship contender the only real way to do so is to invest a fortune in players (ie Manchester City and before them Chelsea in England).

Also, unlike in American leagues players in the rest of the world are not traded between teams, they are transferred. This allows player movement to happen between countries, and also means that if a team desires a player they don’t have to find another player to give to that first player’s team. Instead teams negotiate a transfer fee to pay the current contract-holder for them to release their player from his contract. These transfer fees can reach exorbitant amounts. The most expensive transfers of the 2014 summer transfer window were Luis Suarez from Liverpool to Barcelona for $114 million, James Rodriguez from AS Monico to Real Madrid for $104 million, and Angel di Maria from Real Madrid to Manchester United for $97 million. The most expensive transfer of all time was Garth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for $140 million. By contrast the most ever paid for an American player was around $10 million.

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