But here’s the deal: the World Cup is an aberration. Soccer fans aren’t privileged to such an event every other month. It’s every fours years. Still, there’s plenty of amazing futbol being played until the next one comes around. Here’s a crash course on the basics of professional soccer in Europe.
The Best Soccer Leagues Are in Europe
“Best players” in this case means the most competitive and lucrative. As to where exactly they’re going, well, that depends. You see, there isn’t just one European league. You’ve heard of the big clubs: Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, AC Milan. They’re the soccer world’s aristocracy, but they rarely play each other. Why? They’re in different leagues.
Each country has its own league. It’s subjective to say, but the four best leagues are probably the English Premier League (EPL), La Liga in Spain, the Bundesliga in Germany and Italy’s Serie A. The EPL is the world’s most watched league. Foreign owners have brought atrocious sums of money into the league; clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham now compete with perennial titans Manchester United and Arsenal for trophies. Last season, Liverpool, a club that finished seventh the previous year, was the favorite to win the title with just three matches remaining in the season; they blew it, but you get the point. This is a feeding frenzy league, where the bottom clubs are far from toothless against the big boys. Anything can happen.
Similar to the EPL in competitiveness, Italy’s Serie A (pronounced “Siri Ah”) unfortunately lacks the same financial swagger. Clubs like Juventus, Napoli, Inter, Roma and AC Milan carry high prestige, but their strength of late has attenuated when facing top clubs from other European leagues. Italy definitely boasts some top talent, including Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Mario Balotelli (AC Milan) and Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli). But in the end, it all comes down to money. And there’s just more of it in England.
One of the best teams in recent memory, Barcelona — with Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi — resides in Spain’s La Liga. Its rivalry with Real Madrid, currently the world’s most valuable sport franchise, is probably the fiercest in all of sport. The problem with La Liga is that it’s top-heavy; Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only two teams with a realistic chance of capturing the crown every year. While other Spanish clubs have done well — Atlético Madrid, unbelievably, won La Liga last season — they don’t have the financial capability to sustain success. Like Atlético is finding out now, these other Spanish clubs usually sell their best players, and the whole league suffers as a result.
Germany’s top league is the Bundesliga. It’s known for keeping hold of most of Germany’s domestic talent; out of the eleven Germans that massacred Brazil in the World Cup, nine play in the Bundesliga. While German clubs Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg have historically all done well in European competition, at the moment there really is only one juggernaut: Bayern Munich. With the arrival of ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola at Bayern in 2013, the landscape shifted — not just in German soccer, but in world soccer as whole. Bayern started last season by winning 25 of 27 matches and eventually won the league with a quarter of the season left to play. To say they’ve been dominant domestically is an understatement. And Bayern also bought their great rival Borussia Dortmund’s best players the last two seasons, Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski. They’re arguably the world’s best team at the moment.
Players Aren’t Traded, They’re Bought
The way soccer clubs conduct business throws the American concept of sports business in the bin and sets it alight. First thing’s first: there aren’t any trades; there are transfers. Each soccer player has a certain monetary value, set based on his age, potential, talent and current contract length. To acquire a player, a club must purchase that player from his current club. Then the player must agree to a new contract with his new club. But values are subjective and negotiations can be complicated.
Here’s an example: Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world, recently approached Southampton FC to buy their highly rated defenseman Luke Shaw. United had several bids rejected, but once it offered over £30 million, Southampton accepted. The 18-year-old Shaw signed a four-year contract that paid a reported $160,000 a week. That’s right. He is 18 and basically makes enough to buy a Lamborghini Huracan every 10 days. If you’ve got kids, make them kick a ball.
But a fee being agreed upon doesn’t mean the deal is done. Contracts give players the power to veto any deal and stay at their current club.
Players are transferred between clubs all the time, for many different reasons. Some players go to big clubs to make more money and play in bigger games. Other players leave big clubs for more playing time at smaller ones. On the flip side, out-of-favor players will stay at big clubs for the money and good players stay at small clubs out of loyalty. Then there are players who want a trade because they want to live in a different country, with a new challenge and way of life.
Additionally, players who aren’t playing enough at their current clubs can, with their clubs’ consent, get loaned out to a different club. Usually they’ll be loaned out to a team in a different league; they’ll almost never be loaned out to a rival. The player’s wages are taken care of by their temporary club, and when the loan expires, usually at the end of a season, the player has to return to their parent club.
Also, if a player’s contract runs out, he’s free to sign with another organization. If a player’s contract is running down and he refuses to sign a new contract, he’ll likely be transferred (offered to another club). Clubs hate letting players go for free; it’s like giving away money.
Creating an Even Playing Field
Reading this far, you’ll have noticed the obvious: some clubs have more money than others. Those that are more financially endowed are so because they’ve had previous success (creating more global revenue), been taken over by rich owners, or experienced an amalgam of both. Financial Fair Play is soccer’s recent — and complicated — attempt to govern clubs from global domination. In simplest terms, a club’s allowed to spend (regarding transfers) proportionately to its revenue. But it’s a hard rule to enforce. Last year Manchester City was hit with a £49 million slap on the wrist. Still, it’s not really significant to an owner who’s worth billions.
A League Without a Draft
If he’s talented enough, a young player could be recruited to join one of the world’s more prestigious soccer club’s academies. Like in normal life, some schools are better than others. Barcelona’s academy, La Masia, is one of the most acclaimed soccer schools in the world. Lionel Messi was born in Argentina, but was invited to join La Masia when he was a boy; he did, and now he’s the soccer world’s golden goose.
Every soccer club has a youth academy or a youth squad. The precocious talents progress through the ranks — education, room/board and meals are all paid for — and the few best sign professional contracts when they’re around 16 years old. The sport is completely immersive for these kids, and, understandably, they form strong loyalties to their club. This is part of the reason the passion of European fans is unrivaled. Many kids, even if they’re not skilled enough to make the first team, were once part of their club’s youth system — or somebody they know was.
In the end, soccer is a business. Youth academies are the sport’s lifeblood, pollinating and preparing a club for its future. Early on, a club is faced with a decision: to sell or keep its best players. A smaller club, or one in a lesser league, will most likely allow its players to leave — it’s the financially prudent option. See, when a top talent is sold, the transfer has far-reaching financial reverberations. It could potentially fund the whole club for years, including the next generation of ballers.
A prime example: Sporting CP is one of the biggest clubs in Portugal’s relatively smaller league. In 2003, Manchester United paid Sporting CP $20 million for an 18-year-old named Cristiano Ronaldo. After six seasons at United — where he won the Ballon d’Or (annual award for world’s best soccer player) — Ronaldo was bought by Real Madrid for a record $130 million. Because of Sporting’s previous deal with Manchester United, the Portugese club received a percentage (thought to be around 30%) of any future sale of Ronaldo, including this one. In case you can’t do math, it’s a lot.
The World’s First Smart Soccer Ball
We’re soccer amateurs, so when the Adidas miCoach Smart Ball ($299) needed testing, we enlisted an experienced friend. Could a soccer ball make us play like our friend and make our friend ready for the World Cup? After a few hours of sweating and chasing around the ball, our answer was a resounding… maybe?
Five Historic European Football Stadiums
Even Lesser Matches Matter
In American sports, the worst teams fade away into irrelevance at the end of the season. In European soccer, poor performance means pay cuts from the league. Last year, the EPL’s worst team, Cardiff City, made over £64 million in television rights alone. (By comparison, Liverpool, the most watched club, made close to £100.) Since they were demoted from the EPL, this coming season they’ve already lost all the money that they would have made if they stayed in the league. At the end of each season, clubs at the top give their all to win the league or finish in the top four (Champions League qualification means more TV revenue and prize £) — while teams at the bottom fight like cornered animals to stay in more lucrative and exciting league.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti
Club Real Madrid FC (La Liga)
Annual Salary $10.5 million
Coach Jose Mourinho
Club Chelsea FC (EPL)
Salary $17 million
Coach Arsene Wenger
Club Arsenal FC (EPL)
Salary $10 million
Coach Pep Guardiola
Club Bayern Munich (Bundesliga)
Salary $24 million
Coach Brendan Rodgers
Club Liverpool FC (EPL)
Nationality Northern Irish
Salary $8.5 million
A Sport Without Playoffs
Every top league has two annual domestic tournaments called “Cups”, in which clubs from the same country play each other. In England, there’s the FA Cup and the League Cup. In both cups, clubs from every level of English soccer (an EPL club can play a Championship or League One club) compete in single elimination matches. During the week, a club like Arsenal can play an EPL regular season match, an FA Cup match and then yet another EPL regular season one. A club that does really well on all fronts has the potential to have a frustratingly congested schedule, but also ultimate glory. Winning one of the two domestic cups reaps a small reward, though it’s nowhere near as commercially prosperous as winning the EPL or the Champions League.
If a team finishes in the top four of their league, they qualify for the following season’s European tournaments — meaning they’ll play against the best clubs in other leagues. European tournaments have a similar format to the World Cup: group stages (play each opponent in a group twice) and winner-advances knockout rounds. The Champions League is Europe’s most elite club tournament. It’s near impossible, but if an English club like Manchester United were to win the Champions League and the EPL in the same season, it’d be on par with winning two Super Bowls in a single year (usually the same month).
Clubs that do well domestically, but not well enough to make the Champions League, qualify for the Europa League. Champions League teams that get knocked out in the group stages also qualify. Similar to the NIT Championship for NCAA basketball teams, the Europa League is cool to be in, but also kind of an insult if you’re one of the world’s big hitters. You want to be playing Champions League soccer.
The EPL’s Most Heated Rivalries
Manchester Utd – Liverpool
Two clubs that hate each other. Manchester United recently surpassed Liverpool as the club with the most EPL titles. Liverpool’s poor past decade has allowed United to sip glory’s Kool-Aid. But soccer’s winds shift; The 2013/2014 campaign was the first in almost twelve years that United finished behind Liverpool, and by some distance.
Chelsea – Arsenal – Tottenham
London has numerous clubs, but these are the three biggest. The Arsenal versus Tottenham match is called the North London Derby; Arsenal usually gets the better of Tottenham and, being based in London, the two clubs never fail to draw in top talent. Chelsea is relatively new money. Its London rivalries don’t have the same sentiment, but right now it’s probably the best of the three.
Man Utd – Manchester City
A few seasons back, United’s legendary coach Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed Manchester City “The Noisy Neighbors”. But City is the real deal. Bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, it’s by far the EPL’s wealthiest and, at the moment, best club. City has won two of the past EPL titles. United won the other.
Liverpool – Everton
Their stadiums are less than a mile a part. The Merseyside Derby divides the city of Liverpool and families. Some wear red. Others wear blue. Liverpool is the more glorified club and has won the Champions League five times — more than any other EPL club. Still, this past campaign was the first time Liverpool finished above Everton in three seasons.
Title Contenders, Tournament Teams, and Survivors
For different clubs, the domestic cups are looked at differently–except for the Champions League; every player in world soccer dreams of winning the Champions League. But for a team like Chelsea, whose owner invested private jets full of money into the club, they don’t really care about the domestic cups–it’s a periphery thought. Yes, winning one of the two domestic cups comes with a small reward. But it’s nowhere near as commercially prosperous as winning the EPL or the Champions League would be. The primary incentive isn’t necessarily about money, it’s about building a global brand. To do this, clubs have to win…on the world’s biggest stages.
For a smaller club, say an EPL bottom dweller or a Championship side, these domestic cups are everything. Since they’re not playing European soccer, the domestic Cups are their opportunity to slay the dragon — to flex their muscles and show that team effort can surpass a bunch of overpaid prima donnas. It’s their shot to create history by standing toe-to-toe with the world’s best. For them it’s not necessarily about winning the tournament; it’s about being able to tell their grandkids that they killed a monster. Also, the financial reward that a domestic cup run brings in goes much farther for these minnows.
Domestic cups provide an opportunity for England’s better clubs to give their younger, less seasoned players more game time. If a club like Manchester United advances further in the competition, they’ll start taking it more seriously; but until then, they typically won’t risk injuring their top stars. With no playoff system, every team finishes the season around the same time. It just so happens that some teams will play a lot more matches in that same time period. With more games, the better teams need more players. But more players means less playing time when their teams are prematurely knocked out of tournaments.
A Globally Televised Game
World Cup fever or not, Americans and soccer have a budding, amorous relationship. Yes, the World Cup Final steadily approaches, but shortly thereafter, European soccer commences again. Each EPL match will be available in the U.S. courtesy of NBC Universal. For $250 million, they bought the rights to televise every match last year. More hyped matches appear on their NBC and NBC Sports channels, but all can be streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra (you must be a cable owner, or have a cable owner’s login info). For EST Americans, EPL matches kick off between 7:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The television rights for Champions League matches, which take place Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons (not every week), are owned by FOX Sports.
It’s more difficult to watch the other top European Leagues in America. Much more difficult, in fact. From what we’ve found, their games either air on premium cable channels or are infrequently shown on FOX Soccer, beIN Sports, or random Spanish channels. It’s just so much easier to for us to watch EPL matches. If you’re a soccer fan, I don’t know why you wouldn’t.
So adopt a team, grab a coffee (or morning beer) and scream/cry while watching the best players in the world. In America.
NOTE: Lastly, it’s not soccer. It’s football. Call it soccer to a European and you’re basically a shoobie in the footballing world.