A brief rundown of all the leagues, cups, and international competitions.
Don’t forget about the previous article, World Soccer 101, here.
- FIFA World Cup – This is, of course, the big one. Held every four yearsAlmost every country in the world (for the just-completed 2014 World Cup 203 nations attempted to qualify) enters the grueling qualification process (qualification for 2014 started in June of 2011—just one year after the previous World Cup—and ended in November of 2013). 32 nations enter the finals and are divided into 8 groups of 4. In the first round, known as the group stage, each team plays the other 3 teams in their group and the top 2 teams advance to the elimination rounds. Germany beat Argentina in the final and are the current World Champions. In a somewhat controversial choice, the next World Cup will be held in Russia in 2018.
- FIFA Confederations Cup – I actually like this little-known and little-followed tournament, as it is sort of a mini-World Cup. Held every 4 years, 1 year prior to the World Cup in the same country hosting the World Cup. Rather than the 2 ½ year process of qualification to determine 32 teams to enter the tournament, the Confederations Cup features the winners of the 6 continental confederations’ championships (CONCACAF Gold Cup, Copa Libertadores, Euros, etc), along with the host country’s team and the current World Cup champions. With only 8 teams this is a much shorter tournament, and also the event in which the US performed better than any other competition, making it to the finals of the 2009 tournament in South Africa, losing to Brazil 3-2 after leading at halftime 2-0. Russia will host the next tournament in 2017.
- Euros – The championship of the European federation (UEFA), held every four years, two years off the World Cup cycle. The current holders are Spain. The next tournament will be held in France in 2016, increasing in size from 16 to 24 teams for the first time. Qualification just began last week. This is probably the second-best watched international tournament.
- Copa America – The South American championship is the oldest international tournament in the world. As CONMEBOL has only 10 members, there is no qualification process—all members play in the tournament. In addition, two non-South American nations are invited to bring the total number of teams to 12, to make it possible to group the teams into groups of 4. The current holders are Uruguay, who are also the most successful team with 15 wins. Held every 4 years, the next tournament will be in Chile in 2015. In addition, there will be an extra edition of the tournament in 2016 to celebrate the centennial which will be held in the US, with 6 CONCACAF teams joining the 10 South American teams.
- CONCACAF Gold Cup – The championship of our region, it takes place every two years. Unlike most other tournaments this one does not rotate every time, but is usually held in the US. The US are the current holders, and the next tournament will be played here in 2015. This tournament will help determine which teams get to go to the special 2016 Copa America. The current format is a 12-team event, with the 3 North American teams automatically qualifying. 4 Central American teams were determined by the just-completed 2014 Central American Cup, played here in the US. 4 Caribbean teams will be chosen in the 2014 Caribbean Cup, to be held in Jamaica in November. The final spot will be determined in a playoff between the 5th-place Central American and Caribbean teams.
- African Cup of Nations – Held every two years, the ACN will next be held in Morocco in January of 2015. The timing of this tournament is always interesting, as many top African players leave their European clubs for a month mid-season to participate. 51 entrant nations will be reduced to 16 qualified nations. A very interesting, under-appreciated tournament with lots of upsets.
- Asian Cup – The Asian Cup is held every four years. The current (and most successful with 4 wins) holders are Japan. New AFC member Australia will host the next tournament in 2015.
Domestic Leagues and Cups
A quick run-down of the best known leagues and cups in the world, with the most well-known teams.
- England – The top level of English football is known as the English Premier League or, due to sponsorship, the Barclays Premier League. Manchester United are the winningest team in English history, followed by Liverpool. Other big teams include Man U’s crosstown rival (and defending champion) Manchester City, and London teams Arsenal and Chelsea. The second flight in England is called the Football League Championship, while the third and fourth levels are known as League One and League Two respectively. Confusing, right? There are also two major cup competitions. The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world, having begun in 1871. It is open to teams from the Premier League all the way down to 9th and even 10th levels of football (736 teams entered the last tournament), meaning extremely low-level, amateur teams can dream of taking on fully professional, star-studded teams. Adding to that dream are the fact that the tournament is single-elimination, and each round is unseeded (meaning the weakest teams are not put up against the strongest). The other cup of note is the League Cup, open only to the top 4 levels of English soccer. This tournament is held in much lower esteem. American goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan man the nets for Everton and Aston Villa, respectively, while Brad Friedel is the backup at Tottenham Hotspur. Former Dynamo Geoff Cameron plays at Stoke City, and Jozy Altidore plays at Sunderland. There are many more Americans in the Championship and lower leagues.
- Spain – Spanish soccer is mostly a story of the struggle between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This struggle is not just about football, but culture and politics as well, with Real Madrid representing the central government and Barcelona representing the desire for autonomy or independence for the provinces. The two clubs are star-studded to the extreme, with Real Madrid home to current World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, while Barcelona is the home of Leo Messi, who won the previous 4 titles in a row. The league, known as La Liga, was most recently won by Atletico Madrid, the first time in 10 years that Real or Barca did not win (and only the 6th time in the last 30 years)! There is a knockout cup tournament called the Copa del Rey. No American players currently play in Spain, and few have played there historically.
- Germany – The top league in German football is called the Bundesliga, and is the most attended soccer league in the world (and 2nd most attended sports league in the world, after the NFL). Bayern Munich are the most dominant club and current title holders, with Borussia Dortmund being currently their strongest challenger. There is a cup competition in Germany, the DFB-Pokal, though few pay much attention to it. There are a large number of Americans playing Germany. Julian Green is at Bayern Munich but has been loaned out to Hamburg for the season. David Yeldell is the backup keeper at Bayer Leverkusen. Fabian Johnson plays at Borussia Monchengladbach and Timothy Chandler is at Eintracht Frankfurt, while John Anthony Brooks is at Hertha Berlin. Many, many more Americans play in the lower levels, in part due to the large number of children of American servicemen and German mothers who live in Germany.
- France – The current two-time champions in the French Ligue 1 are Paris-St. Germain, aka PSG. Although they are currently a cash rich club they have only recently been a top team in France, with Olympique Marseille, Monaco, and Olympique Lyon having better records (Lyon hold the record for most consecutive championships of any team in the world, having won all 7 of their league titles from 2002-2008). There are also two cup competitions in France, the Coupe de France and the Coupe de la Ligue. Only one club, Nantes, has an American player, Alejandro Bedoya.
- Italy – The top Italian league, known as Serie A, is famous for its defensive play. Juventus (of Turin—owned by Fiat) have won the most titles, 30, including the last three. Other famous clubs include the two Milan teams, AC Milan and Internazionale. There is a cup competition in Italy, known for sponsorship reasons as the TIM Cup. There are no Americans currently playing in Italy.
- USA – I would hope you all know there is a league here in the US (and Canada), Major League Soccer, which is currently in its 18th season, though the Houston Dynamo have only been in existence since 2006. There are currently 19 teams, with two more (Orlando and NYC) set to join next year, and Atlanta set to join in 2017. But did you know there are minor leagues, as well? The second level is called the NASL, with 10 teams currently, and two more planned for next year. The third tier is called USL-Pro, with 14 teams currently, and 7 more joining next year! There is even a fourth, semipro, tier, occupied by the PDL (63 teams) and the NPSL (78 teams). Some of these teams play in Houston-area suburbs, such as Bryan/College Station and The Woodlands. Note that there is no promotion-relegation between these leagues, nor do I think there ever will be. The US is also home to the third-oldest cup competition in the world, the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. The final was just played this week, with Seattle winning for the fourth time in a row. Unfortunately many MLS teams do not take this competition seriously, including Houston.
- Mexico – The Mexican league was rebranded recently as Liga MX. Although its style of play is pretty different from MLS, there are some similarities. Liga MX has 18 teams, but the season is split into two half seasons, Apertura (Opening) and Clausura (Closing), common through most of Latin America. The teams only play 17 games, each team once, either home or away, during a half season, then play the return fixture the next half season. But at the end of each Apertura or Clausura season there is a playoff structure to determine a champion, one of the few leagues in the world to do that. Also like MLS, Liga MX is fairly balanced, and teams can quickly rise from or sink to the bottom season-to-season. Unlike MLS, but again common to Latin American soccer, there is a promotion-relegation system with a twist: the teams that move up or down are chosen based not on that single season’s performance, but an average of the three previous seasons. The effect of this is to protect the historically strong teams from relegation after a single bad season. Mexico’s most famous teams include Club America, CD Guadalajara (also known as Chivas), and Monterey CF. Mexico has also recently attempted to revive its moribund Cup competition, now called Copa MX. There are many, many Americans playing in Mexico, mostly at the lower levels but seven in the top league, including three at Tijuana.
Don’t forget to check out World Soccer 101, the Basics. Next I’ll tell you where you can actually watch this stuff.