A World Cup fan's guide to European club soccer

Henry Bushnell

So, you’re hooked. You, the sports-crazed American who spends the summer months battling starvation, watched the World Cup. Perhaps you enjoyed it. Perhaps you even loved it. Perhaps you want more. More soccer. Well, you’re in luck.

The World Cup, a postseason tournament, ended less than three weeks ago. But 2018-19 European club seasons are already upon us. The Premier League begins Aug. 10. And here’s a dirty little secret for you: Club soccer is actually better than World Cup soccer.

It’s just, uh, different. Different than the World Cup. Different than American sports. And that’s why we’re here, to explain those differences, and help you, the newly bred World Cup fan, become a full-fledged soccer fan. We’ll do so with 10 frequently asked questions.

1. World Cup. Champions League. What’s the difference?

In American football, there’s the NFL and nothing else. In basketball, there’s the NBA and not much else. In soccer, there’s the World Cup … and the Champions League, and a laundry list of other leagues and ligas and ligues and ligs. So you might be confused. But the distinction, when you understand it, is simple.

The World Cup is the equivalent of the FIBA World Championship or the World Baseball Classic. It’s the international competition, as opposed to the club competition. In soccer, it’s just much bigger than its basketball or baseball counterparts, largely because soccer is the preeminent sport in so many countries around the world.

So whenever you hear about France, Germany or Spain, those are national teams. That’s a completely separate domain from Real Madrid (Spain’s top club), Bayern Munich (Germany’s) or Paris Saint-Germain (France’s). Manchester City (the English Premier League champions) would never play against Brazil.

In fact, several players play for both Manchester City (their club) and Brazil (their national team). Just as LeBron James plays for the Los Angeles Lakers (ugh) and Team USA, Lionel Messi plays for FC Barcelona and Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Juventus (!) and Portugal. Christian Pulisic plays for Borussia Dortmund (?) and the United States.

Lionel Messi struggled at the World Cup with Argentina, but he’s widely considered the best soccer player in the world because of his exploits at his club, FC Barcelona. (Getty)
Lionel Messi struggled at the World Cup with Argentina, but he’s widely considered the best soccer player in the world because of his exploits at his club, FC Barcelona. (Getty)

Their club teams pay their salaries, and therefore occupy most of the soccer world’s attention. But roughly five times a year, they’ll get week-long breaks and join up with their national teams. And once every four years, those national teams take center stage.

2. Champions League. Premier League. League Cup. What’s the difference?

There’s still a lot to digest within the club soccer sphere. Because unlike the NFL, where there’s one ultimate prize (the Super Bowl) and no consolation, soccer clubs play for multiple trophies every season. One team could win up to seven in a single calendar year.

The main competitions are the domestic leagues – the NBA or NFL equivalents. For Manchester United and Liverpool, that’s the English Premier League. For Barcelona and Real Madrid, that’s La Liga. For Bayern and Dortmund, it’s the German Bundesliga. For Juventus and Napoli, it’s Serie A. They feature 18-20 teams apiece and are contested over eight or nine months on a more or less weekly basis.

[Soccer for Dummies, Part 1: Terminology]

The Champions League, meanwhile, is a battle between the best of the best. The top four teams from the past season’s Premier League. The top four from Spain. Four from Germany. Four from Italy. Three from France. Three from Russia, two from Portugal and Turkey and so on, with allotment based on league strength.

Teams from every European nation have a chance to qualify. Thirty-two make the final competition, which looks a lot like the World Cup: A group stage followed by a 16-team knockout round. Games are sprinkled throughout the season, interspersed on weekdays. The Champions League is the most prestigious club trophy of all.

Then there are “domestic cups” – the FA Cup (England), the League Cup (also England), the Copa Del Rey (Spain), the DFB Pokal (Germany) and the Coppa Italia. They pit top-flight teams against lower-tier clubs. They often end up first division vs. first division in the later rounds. But they’re distinct, because they’re single-elimination tournaments – unlike the leagues, which are 34- or 38-game double-round-robins.

3. Wait, so there are no playoffs?

Correct – at least in all the top leagues. That’s a big difference between European soccer and American sports. And it’s part of what makes it so wonderful.

Because it ensures that every. Single. Game. Matters. Or at least the vast majority do. Whoever sits atop the league table (standings) after 38 games is crowned champion. So a 90th-minute game-winner in September matters just as much as one in April. In the NBA, a Lakers-Warriors showdown in December is tons of fun, but ultimately meaningless. In the Premier League, a Manchester City-Liverpool clash in October is tons of fun; it also could ultimately decide the title race. So could a seemingly innocuous clash between Liverpool and Fulham.

The format occasionally turns anti-climactic when one team has an insurmountable lead down the stretch. But it accentuates the importance of every weekend. And it’s often meritocratic – whereas one fluky divisional round playoff game can derail a great NFL season, the best team in Spain over 38 games almost always wins La Liga.

4. Trades vs. transfers

Another big Europe vs. America difference is the player movement system. In U.S. sports, players under contract change teams via trade – an exchange among two or more teams of players or assets. In Europe, players are bought and sold – essentially, they’re traded for money.

Free agency operates somewhat similarly either side of the pond. When players’ contracts expire, they’re free to sign wherever they please. But expiring contracts are much rarer in European soccer for one key reason: In an American sports trade, the asset being traded is the player’s contract. In Europe, a purchasing club effectively buys a player out of his contract with the selling club. The player then agrees to a new, often better-paying, often long-term deal with his new club. (In other words, in American sports, the only thing that resets a player’s free agency clock is a contract extension. In European soccer, it’s either a contract extension or a transfer.)

The other crucial offshoot here is that unlike a trade, which simply requires an agreement between two teams, a transfer requires two separate agreements: One between selling club and buying club, the other between buying club and player. That’s one reason the players have all the power in soccer.

Another is that their earning potential isn’t bound by a salary cap.

Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are the reigning Premier League champions. (Getty)
Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are the reigning Premier League champions. (Getty)

5. Salary caps and spending limits

American sports leagues have salary caps – some stricter of “harder” than others. European soccer leagues don’t, and the reason is pretty simple: If the Premier League introduced a salary cap, its top players would just go earn their worth in Spain or Germany.

In the NFL, there’s no alternative to a non-guaranteed, four-figure practice squad salary, because there’s no other viable American football league. In the NBA, LeBron James is worth at least twice his $38.5 million-per-year deal, but there’s no foreign team capable of paying beyond the NBA’s max or accommodating LeBron’s star.

[Soccer for Dummies, Part 2: The rules]

In soccer, there is. The only entity that could introduce a salary cap would be FIFA – soccer’s global governing body – or perhaps UEFA – Europe’s governing body. But doing so would be mind-numbingly complex and won’t happen.

There are limits on both salaries and transfer spending, governed by “Financial Fair Play” (FFP) rules. But they make spending power a function of a club’s revenue. They prevent clubs from splurging beyond their means, but the unintended consequence is that they effectively introduce team-specific spending caps that are far higher for an elite group of clubs than they are for the rest. So they ensure the rich stay rich because, well, they ensure the rich can spend more and therefore win more.

6. Does that mean the rich teams always win?

Yeah. Usually. Which, honestly, sucks. There’s a very strong correlation between a team’s wage bill and its on-field success. And Barcelona’s wage bill is almost three times that of the fourth-biggest in Spain. Juventus could soon be spending twice as much on salaries as the third-richest team in Italy. Bayern Munich pays three times as much as last year’s Bundesliga runner-up. PSG’s wage bill in France is roughly equal to those of teams 2-6 combined.

And there’s a snowball effect here. Inequality is growing. Juventus has won seven straight Italian titles. Bayern Munich has won six straight Bundesligas. PSG has won five of six in Ligue 1.

7. Why do the poor teams even exist, then?

Ah, but see, the brilliance of soccer’s structure is that there are many prizes and achievements embedded in the many competitions. First of all there are the domestic cups, which give the smaller clubs a shot at silverware. And the PSGs of the world, who’ll win their domestic leagues by wide margins, go all in on the Champions League.

More importantly, there are various benchmarks within domestic leagues. Take Everton, for example, the seventh-best team in England. It knows it probably isn’t going to win the Premier League. Its 2018-19 odds are 250/1. But its stretch goal would be fourth place, because a top-four finish earns a berth in next season’s Champions League. A top-six or -seven finish, meanwhile, secures a spot in the Europa League – basically a second-rate Champions League.

Or, if it has a dreadful season, it could find itself fighting to avoid relegation.

8. Promotion and relegation

This is the last major difference. American leagues are “closed.” European soccer leagues are open. In a given country, the first division is at the top of a soccer pyramid, a network of leagues between which teams can move. Win the third division, and you move up to the second – promotion. Finish last in the first division, and you move down to the second – relegation.

In the Premier League, the bottom three teams at the end of every season are relegated to the second tier – confusingly called the Championship. (The third tier is League One, the fourth League Two.) Coming in the other direction, the winner and runner-up in the Championship earn promotion to the Prem. Teams 3-6 contest a playoff for the third and final spot.

[Soccer for Dummies, Part 3: Tactics]

The threat of relegation dramatically changes incentive structures, because the difference between a single season in the Premier League and one in the Championship is well over $100 million. So more than half of the top flight’s teams operate in fear of “the drop.” Relegation can destroy a club. For a team like Huddersfield Town, a 17th-place finish is the equivalent of a trophy. For one like Crystal Palace, five consecutive seasons in 15th place is better than four top-half finishes and one 18th-place slip.

Relegation limits ambition, because it checks long-term planning. There’s no time for rebuilds, no patience. The second they go awry, a manager gets fired and survival instincts kick in. Relegation scraps are brutal and merciless. But they’re unparalleled drama.

9. I only have time for one league. Which should I choose?

The Premier League. As hinted above, France has one team; Germany has one and a few occasional noise-makers; Italy has one and a few fringe challengers; Spain has two kings and one prince. But England? England has a clear favorite, but six teams that could realistically win a title in the near future. And that doesn’t include Leicester City, which won it three seasons ago as a 5,000/1 longshot.

England also has the most money, and therefore the best players, if not always the best teams. And while it has luscious multicultural flavor, the coverage of it is almost exclusively in English, which certainly helps if that’s your primary language.

10. How do I watch?

Premier League games air on NBC and NBC Sports Network, primarily on weekend mornings and afternoons. There’s almost always one game on Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET, several at 10 a.m. and one at 12:30 p.m. On Sundays, the standard match windows are 8:30 a.m. and 11. There are occasionally Monday and Friday games as well, plus the odd mid-week set of games. At least five games air on NBCSN or NBC every weekend, and the rest are available online for $49.99 a year.

The German Bundesliga is the second-easiest to follow. It’s on Fox Sports 1 and 2, and occasionally on big Fox, plus Fox Sports Go online.

Spanish and French games are on beIN Sports, which can be a bit tougher to find. But there are streaming services, such as FuboTV, that can satisfy your cravings. They’re also good options for lesser leagues.

And Italy’s Serie A … well, that’s still TBD. Its currently the subject, reportedly, of a post-Ronaldo bidding war.

And finally, the big one: the Champions League is moving from Fox Sports to Turner, beginning this season. The schedule is also getting a tweak. The group stage – mid-September through early December – will feature two match windows on six Tuesdays and six Wednesday. Games will kickoff at either 12:55 p.m. ET or 3 p.m. TNT will show one match per window. The rest will be on a subscription streaming service. (Univision will have twice as many games available in Spanish.)

The real must-watch games, however, are the knockout rounds. They run mid-February through May. All those games will be at 3 p.m. ET. They’ll be on TNT. It’s never too early to start clearing your calendars.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.