An American’s Guide to S̶o̶c̶c̶e̶r̶ Football

Fans at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Getty.

Want to get into football but feeling stuck?

I love watching football. Yes, I’ll call it football in this blog post, since that’s what everyone outside the US calls it. There’s a reason it’s called “the beautiful game.” It’s fun, exciting, international, and full of traditions.

In the US, I often struggle to get friends as excited about football as I am. These friends are sports fans — they follow baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, tennis, golf, etc. While their sports itch might already be scratched by these other wonderful sports, I also hear regularly: “I’d love to get more into soccer, but I just don’t understand everything that’s going on.” or “It seems like soccer teams are playing all the time. I don’t know which games are important.”

That’s a fair point, and football can be confusing to outsiders. Teams play across many leagues and competitions. New or potential fans might recognize team names or players, but not the competitions or cups. I always hear, “Is this game a big deal?”

To help one of my friends (hi, Mike!) clear this hurdle, I sat down and wrote this blog. It ended up being much longer than I expected, further emphasizing that getting into football can be off-putting due to its complexity. However, I hope it helps demystify the world of football and introduces the sport to a whole set of new US fans who’ve maybe just waited for someone crazy enough (or has a lot of time during COVID) to make things understandable. To keep things simple, I focused on men’s football since this is the area I know more about.

The easiest way to keep track of everything is to follow a player or team for a year. All players will represent a club team. Especially good players may also represent a national team. As our examples, let’s follow two of the best football players in the world over the past decade: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi represents two teams: FC Barcelona (club team) in Spain’s La Liga and Argentina (national team). Cristiano Ronaldo represents two teams as well: Juventus F.C. (club team) in Italy’s Serie A and Portugal (national team). Sometimes it helps to have a protagonist, and we’ll follow them throughout this blog post.

Let’s check out the club teams first.

Club Teams

Club teams are similar to US sports teams. Teams generally represent a city and play within a league. The New York Yankees are based in New York and play in Major League Baseball. Messi’s Barcelona play in Spain’s domestic football league called La Liga (“The League”).

Let’s start with one easy difference: team names. While US teams have nicknames — like the Dallas Cowboys, Golden State Warriors, or Boston Bruins — football teams often just have a club name, like FC Barcelona. “F.C.” just stands for Futbol Club. While some teams have nicknames, most are cultural rather than official names. For example, Barcelona (or Barça for shorthand) is known as the Blaugrana. In Catalan, blau means blue and grana translates to deep red, which are the colors of the team jerseys. Juventus’s nickname is I Bianconeri (“The Black and Whites”) also based on their club colors. Maybe not the most exciting examples. On a more interesting note, Manchester United’s nickname is the “Red Devils.”

Sticking with the clubs, another interesting difference from US teams is that international football clubs tend to be part of a larger sports club in the city. In addition to its football club, Barcelona has teams for women’s football, beach soccer, basketball, wheelchair basketball, handball, roller hockey, ice hockey, rugby, futsal (no idea what that is), and men’s and women’s volleyball. All of these teams represent the same Barcelona club and all wear the same colors and emblem. That would be like all the teams in Boston having the same colors and name. Pittsburgh professional sports teams (Steelers, Pirates, Penguins) all wear the city’s black and yellow colors, but they are separate organizations. Sports clubs internationally are also forward looking. Flamengo is a sports club in Rio de Janeiro with one of the biggest football teams in Brazil. They recently added an e-sports team to the club.

Are all football clubs equal?

Like North American sports there is a hierarchy amongst teams. Most aspiring NBA stars are more excited to play for the LA Lakers than the Memphis Grizzlies, just as MLB players might look at the New York Yankees as a more aspirational club than the Milwaukee Brewers. Bigger cities can mean tangential markets for their talents (e.g. LA is close to the media industry and celebrity culture) or bigger paychecks (the Yankees pay more than the Brewers). Because football doesn’t have a salary cap, larger metropolitan areas are home to the best teams in their country or region: London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, etc.

Top football clubs by social media presence in 2019. Source: InsideSport.

Similar to how the NHL in North America is viewed as the best hockey league vs. Russia’s KHL league, European football is generally viewed as the top of the footballing world hierarchy. The best players want to play each other and that means “making it in Europe” where the most talent is concentrated. Great South American players like Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil) play for European club teams Barcelona (Spain) and Paris Saint-Germain (France), respectively. Christian Pulisic, arguably the best American player, plays for Chelsea (England) while amazing Canadian talent Alphonso Davis plays for Bayern Munich (Germany).

To see just how international football has become, here’s a look at the July 2, 2020 starting line-ups between last year’s two top “English” teams in the Premier League:

Can players move between clubs?

Players can move between clubs the same way that athletes can move across teams in the North American sports leagues. There are contracts that have to be respected, but players can force moves to other teams if they and their agents push hard enough. ESPN actually has a pretty good tutorial on How a Transfer Works. One difference is that moving across leagues is not uncommon. This would be like hockey players moving back-and-forth between the NHL and KHL. Another is that player-for-player trades in the American sports style are pretty rare.

Some players stay at one club for a long time while others bounce between teams. Messi has played his entire senior career at Barcelona from 2004 to present. By “senior” I mean on the most senior team (like the “varsity” team in high school sports). FC Barcelona also has B and C squads which serve like developmental teams. Most football clubs have robust talent develop organizations for finding rising stars, and many sell their best developed talent to other clubs for a profit. Messi is seen as the epitome of Barcelona, the same way people associate Kobe Bryant with the LA Lakers or Tom Brady (until recently) with the New England Patriots.

On the other hand, Ronaldo has played at four clubs in four countries: Sporting CP in Portugal (2002–2003), Manchester United in England (2003–2009), Real Madrid in Spain (2009–2018), and Juventus in Italy (2018-Present).

Zlatan Ibrahimović and his various clubs from 1999-Present.

Zlatan Ibrahimović, an outsized Swediesh football personality, captures the journeyman career path. Since 1999, he’s played at Malmö FF (Sweden), Ajax (the Netherlands), Juventus (Italy), Internazionale (Italy), Barcelona (Spain), AC Milan (Italy), Paris Saint-Germain (France), Manchester United (England), LA Galaxy (US), and AC Milan (again).

What are loans?

Football clubs have a practice of loaning players to another team. This means that while a club still owns the rights for a player’s contract, they can subcontract them out to another team for a year or longer. A club might do that to develop a younger player who can’t get enough playing time with the senior team, reshuffle things financially to balance a club’s books, or feel out the potential for a transfer in the future.

While Ibrahimović was part of Barcelona from 2009–11, he was loaned to AC Milan during the 2010–11 season. The teams completed a transfer the following year with Ibrahimović joining AC Milan in 2011–2012.

Philippe Coutinho scores for Bayern Munich against Barcelona during the 2019–20 Champions League. Coutinho was awkwardly on loan from Barcelona at the time. Photo: GiveMeSport.

Football clubs play in a domestic league, but leagues function differently than those who follow American sports. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona plays in La Liga, which is the top division in Spain. They regularly face other large club teams in Spain like Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus plays in Italy’s top domestic league called Serie A against other well-known Italian clubs like Internazionale, AC Milan, Roma, and Napoli.

But leagues are more fluid in football. The teams in them actually change a little each year. At the end of a La Liga season, the worst three teams are relegated to a lower division. In Spain, this is called the Segunda División/“Second Division” (once again very creative). In 2019–20, the three teams that were demoted from La Liga were Leganés, Mallorca, and Espanyol. To keep the number of teams constant, three top teams were promoted from the Segunda División to La Liga: Cádiz, Huesca, and Elche. Same thing goes in Italy for Serie A and its second division Serie B.

This is a cool structural innovation that promotes meritocracy and competition. In the US, terrible teams play an entire season and know that next year they’ll still be in the league (hi, Cleveland Browns). This leads to meaningless games and awkward situations where US sports teams will tank to come in last in hopes of getting a high draft pick. This is bad for fans.

In football even the worst teams and lower leagues have entertaining games: they play to fight off relegation or achieve promotion. It’s not uncommon to see teams that get relegated collapse on the field in tears at the end of a season — that’s how much is at stake. Promotion battles are also fun. The playoff game to see who makes it from the second division (the confusingly named “Championship”) to the first division (Premier League) in England is considered the richest game in sports. Because lucrative TV rights are shared equally amongst all Premier League teams, getting promoted means big money. It’s estimated the clubs promoted to the Premier League can earn as much as £160m. These funds can be invested in better players and facilities.

Another cool thing is that promotion means that theoretically any team in a country could one day play at the top level. The English football league system has 11 connected leagues. That means a local rec league team could keep winning and make it all the way to the Premier League one day. And there are countless examples of teams that have climbed multiple leagues over the years.

While almost all major football countries have a domestic league, some of the newer ones (like the US and India) don’t have enough depth to support a relegation / promotion system yet. Hopefully they do in the future.

Here’s a quick summary of teams and leagues for some European footballing countries. You’ll recognize many of the names:

Click the links for more info: La Liga, Serie A, Premier League, Bundesliga, Eredivisie, Primeira Liga.

And some others from around the world that you may be less familiar with:

Click the links for more info: Série A, Primera División, Süper Lig, Major League Soccer, Liga MX, J1 League.

In almost every league shown above, each team plays every other team twice: once home and away. A victory in a game earns 3 points, while a tie earns 1 point. Losses earns 0 points. Each week, the league’s table is updated to reflect the teams with the most points. “Table” is just another name for standings. Teams win their domestic league by earning the most points. Ronaldo’s Juventus won Series A by accumulating 83 points (26 wins, 5 draws, 7 losses) over 36 (2 games × 19 other teams). They narrowly edged out Internazionale who earned 82 points (24 wins, 10 draws, 4 losses).

If the top two teams tie on the number of points, there are tiebreakers to determine a champion. The same goes for separating teams who might tie in the relegation battle. In Series A, the tiebreakers would go in this order: (1) head-to-head points between the team, (2) head-to-head goal difference between the teams, (3) goal difference in all games, (4) total goals scored, and (5) playoff at neutral venue.

Winning your domestic league is a big deal. You get a big trophy (football fans love talking about trophies). You get a parade. You get bragging rights. And you also earn the right to play more games in cool competitions like the Champions League or the Copa Libertadores. But more on those in a second. First, let’s talk about domestic competitions.

In US sports leagues, the best teams qualify for the playoffs. The winners of the playoffs (Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals) are crowned the champions of their respective league.

In football, the team that wins its domestic league is considered the champion. Therefore, they don’t really need playoffs. You might think that sounds dumb — the playoffs are the best part of American sports, right? While I agree that American playoffs are super fun, I also think there’s something fascinating about the way football treats competitions.

Domestic football competitions look like the NCAA basketball tournament. Teams are ranked and compete in a two-legged (two games played) and knockout style brackets. The tournament usually takes place throughout the season, not after it like in the US model. The winner of the competition earns a trophy and bragging rights. In Spain, the king literally gives the Copa del Rey to the competition’s winner — a perk the La Liga champions don’t get. While fun to win, winning your league is still more impressive than winning the domestic cup competition. Almost any player would choose the La Liga title despite the royal treatment.

Some domestic competitions are large. The FA Cup in England is open to any team that wants to enter from any of the top 10 leagues. In 2011–2012, 763 clubs competed. Teams in the top division (like Manchester United) get byes until the later rounds so they don’t end up playing in the middle of nowhere against a bush league team.

In Italy the competition is known as the Coppa Italia. In 2019–20, Ronaldo’s Juventus lost to Napoli in the final. So, even though Napoli didn’t win the league, they did win a trophy and some bragging rights. That might strike Americans as odd, but it is an interesting concept of separating the regular season from a tournament so that (1) the regular season means more and (2) more teams have a chance to win something. In fact, the NBA is taking inspiration from European football competitions to test out its own midseason tournament.

Below is a quick summary of domestic competitions for Spain, Italy, England, and Germany:

Click the links for more info: Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, FA Cup, EFL Cup, DFB-Pokal.

You might be asking yourself, “Do the season champions and the competition champions ever play each other?” Absolutely! As I said before, football teams and fans love trophies. Having the two champions play each other is another chance for a trophy and a fun game to fill stadiums and TV airtime. Many leagues bill these competitions as a “super” cup of some sort. While it’s fun to win, it’s not nearly as big as winning your domestic league. This is evidenced by the fact that these games usually take place right before the start of a new season (since they depend on knowing who the previous year’s winners are).

While most of the countries above follow the format of league champion plays competition champion, Spain has recently introduced a new format to the Supercopa de España that invites 4 teams: the winners and runners-up of La Liga and the winners and runners-up of the Copa del Rey.

Click the links for more info: Supercopa de España, Supercoppa Italiana, FA Community Shield, DFL-Supercup.

In 2020, Ronaldo’s Juventus team will face Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana since Juventus won Serie A and Napoli lifted the Coppa Italia (coincidentally by beating Juventus). It is possible for one team to be the champion of both the league and the domestic cup. In 2019–20, Bayern Munich won both the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal. Easy solution: Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga runner-up) takes the place of the competitor in the DFL-Supercup.

Despite the exciting names like Supercoppa and Supercup, these trophies actually don’t mean as much as winning your league and cup competition. England’s FA Community Shield actually started and continues as a charity event. The games are still fun and competitive, but there’s not much at stake.

When you look at the names of teams above, you might be wondering to yourself: “Don’t the same teams win their leagues and cups every year? Like how often does Eibar defeat Real Madrid or Barcelona?” It’s a fair point. Leagues winners tend to be familiar names, particularly of late. From 2003–04 to 2019–2020 either Real Madrid or Barcelona won 15 of 16 La Liga titles (Atlético Madrid won in 2013–14). Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund won 11 of 12 Bundesliga titles from 2007–08 to 2019–20 (VfL Wolfsburg won in 2008–09). Juventus has won 9 straight Serie A titles. England’s mix of winners has been better, but still usually comes down to one of Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal.

Football’s solution? Invite all the best teams from each domestic league to play each other in a continental competition. That means that the top teams get to play all the other top teams. These competitions would need impressive sounding names to match the level of competition, and they do. Europe’s governing football body (called UEFA) organizes Europe’s continental club competition: the Champions League. CONMEBOL organizes South America’s Copa Libertadores competition. Those are probably the biggest two, but each continent has their own:

Football governing bodies. Click the links for more info: AFC, CAF, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, OFC, UEFA.
Click the links for more info: CAF Champions League, AFC Champions League, UEFA Champions League, CONCACAF Champions League, OFC Champions League, Copa Libertadores.

Let’s use the Champions League as an example. The strength of each country’s domestic league determines how many teams that league gets to send as competitors in the Champions League. The method for calculating strength is based on the country’s UEFA coefficient. In 2020–21, the top four European leagues were ordered as Spain, England, Italy, and Germany. Each of those leagues sends their top 4 teams. France and Portugal have the next strongest leagues and send their top 3 teams. Russia, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, Ukraine, Scotland, Cyprus, and Denmark send 2 teams. All other countries — even the small ones like Malta and the Faroe Islands — get to send their league champion.

The Champions League comes with a lot of prestige and even more TV deal money. Like a lot of money. Just making the Champions League guarantees you a big payday. The deeper you go in the competition, the more money you can make. It’s estimated that Liverpool made €80 million for winning the 2018–2019 Champions League. You may have guessed that this has the consequence of making domestic leagues even more fun, which is true. If there’s a runaway team that’s going to win the La Liga title, there’s still 3 places up for grabs in the Champions League. That means battles for these positions can be really intense and keeps leagues competitive at the top (top 4 places are important) and bottom (fight to stave off relegation).

After the Champions League qualifying rounds, a double round-robin system, and knockout rounds are done, a single champion emerges who bills themselves as “The Champions of Europe.” In terms of trophies to win, this is The Big One. If you’re one of the biggest teams in Europe, winning your domestic league is expected. Winning the Champions Leagues means you’re King of the Mountain. While Juventus have won Serie A 36 times, they’ve only won this coveted European Cup twice. The best European teams will spend millions and millions of dollars trying to win this competition. It’s hard to do, and I’d argue bigger than winning the Super Bowl. There’s a reason it’s typically the last game of the football year.

Winning big trophies is also a sign of football super stardom. As of the end of the 2019–20 season, Messi had won La Liga 10 times and the Champions League four times. With Manchester United, Ronaldo won the Premier League three times and the Champions League once. With Real Madrid he won La Liga twice and the Champions League four times. He’s now won Serie A twice with Juventus. That’s part of the reason they’re considered the best-of-the-best. They deliver the big trophies for their clubs.

Unlike other continents, Europe also has a robust second-tier competition called the UEFA Europa League. It’s kind of like the NIT tournament for NCAA basketball in that it’s for the team’s who didn’t quite qualify for the Champions League. For example, while the top 4 teams in the Premier League qualify for the Champions Leagues, the fifth and sixth place teams qualify for the Europa League. Additionally, teams can qualify for the Europa League by winning the domestic cup (e.g. Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, FA Cup, DFB-Pokal) unless they also qualified for the Champions League, in which case they’d choose the Champions League. The Europa League is competitive, especially the later rounds. The Europa League winner automatically qualifies for the Champions League the following season.

You now know that football loves competitions and games. And the previous section may have raised some questions for you.

First, do the Champions League champion and the Europa League Champion ever play? Yes, in a single game called the UEFA Super Cup (this should sound like a familiar thing at this point). For example, in 2018–19 the Champions League winners Liverpool beat the Europa League winners Chelsea to claim this cup. This game is usually pretty fun and competitive since there’s more silverware on the line for the trophy case. However, the winner is in no way considered a truer champion of Europe than the Champions League winner. It also comes at the start of a new season to get fans around the world amped up for more football.

Do the champions of the different continents ever play each other? Yes, they play a tournament called the FIFA Club World Cup. FIFA is the global body for governing football including the much better known World Cup competition. This tournament has been growing more popular in recent years, but almost always boils down to the European champion playing the South American champion. South American teams tend to take the game more seriously and see this as a chance to knock the European superclubs down a peg. As of 2019, European clubs have won 12 times and South American clubs 4 times. No other continent has won yet.

Liverpool celebrating its first FIFA Club World Cup in 2019. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES.

Quick note: In 2019 Liverpool (Champions League) defeated Flamengo (Copa Libertadores) in the final. It was awesome, and not just because these are my favorite teams on their respective continents :)

Alright, so I’ve already said the Champions League or Copa Libertadores is about the best trophy a European or South American club can win. Is there anything better? Well, yes, but it comes from winning a combination of trophies. If a club team wins its league and its domestic cup, it’s called winning a Double. If that team also wins the continental cup, it’s known as the Treble.

2019–20 Bayern Munich. The most recent Treble winners.

Trebles are really hard to win, so we’re talking truly legendary teams. Looking at Europe, only seven European clubs have achieved the treble since 1967. Only Barcelona and Bayern Munich have done it twice. Below is a list of those winning teams (note: the Champions League was previously called the European Cup):

  • 1966–67: Celtic 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿: Scottish Football League, Scottish Cup, European Cup
  • 1971–72: Ajax 🇳🇱: Eredivisie, KNVB Cup, European Cup
  • 1987–88: PSV Eindhoven 🇳🇱: Eredivisie, KNVB Cup, European Cup
  • 1998–99: Manchester United 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿: Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League
  • 2008–09: Barcelona 🇪🇸: La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League
  • 2009–10: Internazionale 🇮🇹: Serie A, Coppa Italia, Champions League
  • 2012–13: Bayern Munich 🇩🇪: Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, Champions League
  • 2014–15: Barcelona 🇪🇸: La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League
  • 2019–20: Bayern Munich 🇩🇪: Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, Champions League

Messi has won a Treble twice with the 2008–09 and 2014–15 Barcelona teams. Ronaldo has never won one despite playing on three teams that have won a lot of trophies (Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus).

So we’ve covered a ton of games and competitions. And I’m sure this can all start to feel a little confusing. It might help to see things visually. Below I’ve put together a look at the top four European leagues and competitions and the Champions League for the 2018–19 football season. I didn’t use 2019–20 since that year was greatly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic:

The 2018–19 club football season across Spain, Italy, England, Germany, and the Champions League.

National Teams

National teams are pretty straightforward. In addition to playing on a club team, the best players can be called up to their national team. This is similar to US sports. For example, Dirk Nowitzki played for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA and also represented Germany at the international level. Lebron James plays for the LA Lakers and represents Team USA. For our two example players, Messi plays for the Argentina national team and Ronaldo plays for Portugal.

There are four main competitions at the international level that I’ll highlight: (1) World Cup, (2) continental cups, (3) other national competitions, (4) the Olympics, and (5) international friendlies.

Let’s start with the FIFA World Cup, the Biggest Trophy of Them All. This is bigger than the Champions League or any domestic league. You win for your country, you become a beloved hero and legend forever. Players would trade any trophy for this one. Enough said.

France celebrating it’s second World Cup win in 2018. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty.

In its current format only 32 teams are invited to compete in the World Cup, which is held every 4 years. To start, FIFA debates how many teams from each continental soccer associations should be represented at the World Cup. Since Europe is typically viewed as the strongest footballing continent and has a lot of countries, it gets the most teams at the World Cup. Here’s FIFA’s association targets for the 2022 World Cup:

  • CAF (Africa): 5
  • AFC (Asia): 4.5 (not including host nation)
  • UEFA (Europe): 13
  • CONCACAF (North and Central America and Caribbean): 3.5
  • OFC (Oceania): 0.5
  • CONMEBOL (South America): 4.5

While the host country automatically gets a spot, the other countries play a lot of qualifying matches to see who gets to represent their continent and who doesn’t. Games take place between countries in the same region. For example, the US would play other teams in CONCACAF like Mexico, Canada, or Costa Rica. There are some qualifying games between different groups for the final spots.

Once the field of 32 teams is set, the tournament begins. The early rounds feature a double round robin format, before moving into the knockout stages. It’s seriously the best sports event in the world.

Continental competitions are a lot like the World Cup, except the competition takes place between countries in the same continental association rather across the entire globe.

One continental competition you may have heard is the UEFA European Championship, also known as “The Euros”. At the Euros, the best European national teams qualify for a 24-team competition that ultimately crowns the best national team in Europe. Much like the World Cup, the Euros are held every four years.

Another popular competition is CONMEBOL’s Copa América which takes place mostly between countries in South America. Unlike the World Cup or Euros, the competition hasn’t been held on a strict schedule. Since 2000, there have been competitions in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2016, and 2019. Additionally, the Copa América sometimes invites non-CONMEBOL countries to compete like Australia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Qatar, and the United States.

Given the quality of football in Europe and South America, winning the Euros or Copa América is a big deal.

Portugal after winning the Euros in 2016. Photo: TRT World and Agencies.

Neither Messi or Ronaldo has won the World Cup, but Ronaldo won the Euros with Portugal in 2016 after previously having lost in the finals in 2004. Messi has been to Copa América final three times (2007, 2015, 2016) and the World Cup final once (2014) but never won either competition. While Messi is oftentimes considered the greatest player of all time, the lack of winning these competitions with Argentina has been the one thing missing from his resumé. This is the same type of argument NFL fans used against Peyton Manning before he won a Super Bowl.

Below is a list of continental competitions for national teams:

Click the links for more info: Africa Cup of Nations, Asian Cup, European Championship, Gold Cup, Nations Cup, Copa América.

To fill in the gaps between the World Cup and continental cup competitions, football governing organizations have looked to introduce other types of competitions. In 2018, UEFA (the governing body for European football — you might remember them as the organizing body for the Champions League, the Europa League, and the Euros) introduced the UEFA Nations League. More or less they’re trying to create a new competition to replace the less-competitive international friendlies (more on those below). It’s still to be determined whether these competitions will catch on.

In hockey and basketball, winning Olympic gold is the highest honor a national team can achieve. In football, that’s not the case since it already has an amazing international competition: the World Cup. While the Olympics might give you bragging rights, teams don’t take it nearly as seriously. To align closer to its concept of amateurism, the Olympics is generally played by U-23/U-21 team with a limited number of over-25 or -28 players on the roster.

Many countries therefore don’t fully compete or send their best players to the competition. Messi has won Olympic gold with Argentina, but you rarely hear that mentioned relative to the finals he almost won in the World Cup and Copa América. Football is like tennis in this regard. Most players aspire to win a Grand Slam level event, and no one cares that Federer hasn’t won an Olympic Gold.

Mexico beat Brazil 2–1 to win Olympic gold in 2012. Photo: Fansided.

These are the easiest to explain. Essentially two national teams agree to play each other just to play each other. There’s no trophies or medals on the line. For example, Brazil and the US could pick a time and place and agree to play. While these games can technically affect a country’s strength rating based on performance, they’re usually used for marketing to fans. For example, a lot of international teams and club teams play games in the US. Why? The US market is huge and it’s an opportunity to tap into it.

Tying It All Together

So, yeah, it actually takes some time to explain all the different leagues, cups, and competitions going on at any given time. Because winning often leads to more games, match fixtures aren’t always known ahead of time. Football schedules tend to be more dynamic than their North American counterparts. Additionally, many of these leagues and cup competitions are happening at the same time. One of the best ways to understand this is to follow a single team or player through a season.

Let’s imagine someone had started watching Liverpool in 2017–18. Liverpool was 4th in the Premier League and lost in the round of 32 teams in the FA Cup. That might seem like a “meh” year. But because they finished in the top 4 in the Premier League, they qualified for the 2018–19 Champions League. The team rapidly improved in 2018–19 and ended up winning the Champions League and placing 2nd in the Premier League to Manchester City. That opened even more games for them. Because they won the Champions League, they played (and beat) Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup. They also played in and won the FIFA Club World Cup. Because Manchester City won the Premier League and FA Cup, Liverpool also played them (and lost) in the FA Community Shield.

Great players like Messi and Ronaldo want to play for the top teams because these clubs continuously compete in the best competitions. Success breeds more success, so you want to be on the most competitive teams. It’s for this reason that the best players in the world tend to gravitate towards a handful of superclubs: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, etc.

Let’s look at Messi. In 2020–21, he will be competing in La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and Champions League with Barcelona at a minimum. He will also be competing in the 2021 Copa América and playing qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup with Argentina at a minimum. When you look at that insane schedule, it’s easy to see why Messi might sit out a La Liga game or two against a really weak opponent or skip an international friendly. But he will have plenty of opportunities to add to his legacy.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope I have helped demystify the world of football. While getting into football as an American may feel overwhelming at first, I guarantee you that it starts to make sense over time. I’m sure football fans around the world think the same thing when trying to figure out baseball or hockey.

Treat your exploration into football as a social experience and something fun. Games are more exciting when watched with friends, and football fans will always stop to help explain things for you. If you’re in San Francisco and want to get into the Premier League, Kezar Pub is an excellent Liverpool bar to watch the Reds play.

Several friends have also highlighted their love of the game Football Manager. It’s basically is a simulator of the leagues and gives you a perspective of what the teams do and how they operate. If you want to get even more in the weeds than this blog post, that could be your avenue.

Liverpool fans in San Francisco at Kezar Pub. Photo: FootySF.

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