When comparing different countries in soccer to different conferences in the NCAA, it must feel like a weird concept that you don’t play teams in other “conferences” and that winning your “conference” is a very meaningful trophy at the end of the season. However, the top team(s) from countries on any given continent will compete amongst each other in the competition known as the Champions League. This is a tournament-style competition that takes place simultaneous to the domestic season (A team may play in their league cup Saturday, have a Champions League game Wednesday, and then a domestic league game the next Sunday), featuring all the drama fans could possibly ask for.
Something unique to any American sport is that in soccer, you compete to qualify for next season’s Champions League. Take my favorite team for example - Tottenham Hotspur. They made it all the way to the Champions League final last season, but barely qualified for this season’s tournament, finishing a single point above the 5th place team in last season’s Premier League (I’m definitely going to stay impartial and not mention that our bitter rivals Arsenal finished a point below us and missed out on the elite competition for the third straight season #littlebrother). Tottenham could’ve gone as far as the finals last year and not qualified for this year’s tournament - a tough reality, but an added incentive for teams to finish their domestic seasons strong. The “Top 4” race in England (and other countries) is consistently entertaining with such high stakes on the line to qualify for the Champions League.
Similar to college basketball’s March Madness, Europe has a secondary competition like the NIT called the Europa League, except winning the Europa League is far more prestigious than winning the NIT for most teams. This competition gives smaller teams/countries a legitimate chance to compete against other teams in Europe and provides potential financial benefits for tournament success.
Very similar to the structure of March Madness, the more successful countries receive more entries into the tournament. Elite countries like Spain, England, and Italy receive four spots into the tournament while smaller countries like Belgium may only receive a single entry (even then, some teams have to pre-qualify, this helps eliminate some of the smaller countries). All the teams are broken up into pots so they can be paired into groups. The pools are made up of team success - the best teams will be in Pot 1 so they don’t play each other until later on in the competition assuming they both advance.
The Champions League is known as the world’s best club competition - taking teams from the best football countries in the world with a knockout competition to determine continental kings. An amazing part of global soccer is that the average fan can enjoy success in their domestic league, rooting for their country, and by striving to be the world’s best in the Champions League.
Author: Living in Southern California, Robert Sweeney has been a fan of soccer since he played as a young child. Since then, he’s become a diehard Tottenham and US National Team fan. Rob enjoys writing about the impact soccer has had on his life in hopes that it betters others as well. Twitter: @robsweeney11