European Football 101: How to Become a Fan of the World’s Most Popular Sport

European Football 101: How to Become a Fan of the World’s Most Popular Sport

An Americans Guide to Getting into European Football

Few sports capture the same kind of intense emotion and excitement as European football – aka soccer. Throughout much of the world, interest in the sport continues to grow as people increasingly prefer it over basketball, tennis or baseball. To most fans, it’s not just entertainment, it’s a full-on lifestyle.

Despite massive global popularity, fandom in the United States isn’t nearly as widespread. Of course, this can likely be attributed to leagues such as the NFL, NBA or MLB (and NHL, too) taking up much of an American sports fan’s time and energy. Not to mention, the U.S.-based Major League Soccer continues to grow itself – even if the actual product on the field pales in comparison.

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Though perhaps the largest hurdle keeping soccer fans in the U.S. from buying into European football is the fact that it’s just unfamiliar, despite sharing many qualities with the MLS. Once you get a feel for the basics, however, it’s really not as daunting as it seems.

To help, we’ve put together a comprehensive walkthrough on getting into European football, covering everything from the absolute basics on up to how to pick your team and where to watch each match. Consider it an American’s guide to getting into European football. You’ll thank us later.

European Football Leagues and Their Clubs

It’s easy to want to jump right into picking a club to root for but understanding the various leagues – as well as the rules and tournaments that define those leagues – is the best introduction to the game. All told, there are 36 leagues that make up the entirety of European football. Within those leagues is a hierarchy of sub-divisions, as well.

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The division structure allows for club relegation and promotion (more on this below) and gives less experienced or less skilled players the ability to see meaningful match time – as opposed to just riding the bench in a higher division. It’s like the minor leagues in Major League Baseball, though each lower division team isn’t tied to a specific top-flight club.

Each league division has anywhere from 20 to 24 teams, depending on the country and their division standing. For example, the top league in England, the English Premier League, features 20 teams while League Two, the lowest English division, has 24.

Though this may seem overwhelming to keep up with, there are essentially six top-flight divisions that command the majority of American interest.

Those leagues are:

Premier League of England (mentioned above)
La Liga in Spain
Bundesliga in Germany
Serie A in Italy
Ligue 1 in France
Eredivisie in the Netherlands

Of these six, the Premier League and La Liga tend to be the most popular and often have the highest number of superstar caliber players. For instance, Lionel Messi, a player widely considered one of the best players in the world, plays in La Liga for the club Barcelona. In the Premier League, world renowned players Mo Salah and Paul Pogba play for the clubs Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively.

Those examples only scratch the surface in terms of league star power but also shouldn’t take away from what the other 34 leagues have to offer. It’s easier to get into European football by latching onto a side that offers some bit of familiarity, but there’s also nothing wrong with rooting for a team from Ukraine’s Premier League.

European Football Women’s Leagues

In addition to each of the men’s leagues and divisions are a number women’s leagues, as well. Many clubs feature a companion women’s team which often go by the same name (i.e. Liverpool FC Women or FC Barcelona Femeni).

Women’s leagues share much of the same general rules and league structure, though not every division features a similar promotion and relegation format. If the club you end up rooting for has a women’s counterpart, take time to watch their matches, too. The competition is just as high, plus it gives you another excuse to don your team’s colors.

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European Football – General Rules

The Match

Compared to the MLS, the specific match rules for European football are mostly similar. Each match features two 11-a-side teams vying to score more goals than the other across two 45-minute halves. If neither has more goals at the end of regulation, an overtime period of two 15-minutes halves occurs. During the regular season, teams are able to tie after overtime but during a cup tournament, which often requires an outright winner, a penalty shootout occurs.

Manchester City v Liverpool FC - Premier LeagueGettyImages

Though a team starts with 11 players, they don’t have to play that exact lineup for the entirety of the 90 minutes. Each side has the ability to substitute up to three players and once a player comes off, they’re unable to go back into the game. Field size also differs from stadium to stadium, though it’s mostly insignificant and doesn’t necessarily impact the game.

Season Standings and Schedule

At the conclusion of a match, each team is able to net a certain number of points depending on the outcome. Teams get three points for a win, one for a tie and none for a loss. These points tally across the entire season, and each team’s standing appears on what’s called a league table.

The table ranks each team based on the number of points they’ve racked up during the season, while also listing their goal differential (the number of goals scored minus the number of goals given up). Goal differential is important as it’s used as one of the tie-breakers at the end of a season – in the event of a tie in points.

End of Season Winner

Where European football does differ from its U.S. counterpart is in terms of an end of season playoff or, more accurately, the lack of an end of season playoff. Almost all European leagues crown a league winner based entirely off the number of points a team amasses throughout the year. At the end of a long season, this simple rule can spell heartbreak for a particular club.

For instance, in 2019, the English Premier League squad, Manchester City, finished the season with 98 total points thanks to 32 wins, two draws and four losses. Right behind them was Liverpool who finished with 97 points from 30 wins, seven draws and one loss. Since Manchester City finished with just one more point, they took the crown of league champion. City fans rejoiced while Liverpool fans were dispirited – as is often the case with European football.

Promotion and Relegation

Another unique aspect to European football is its system of promotion and relegation. What this means is that teams from any league division have the ability to move either up or down between divisions based on their end of season standing. In England, the bottom three teams in the Premier League each season shift down to the English Football League Championship, otherwise known as level 2. Conversely, the top three teams from level 2 move up to the Premier League at the end of each season.

This is perhaps its biggest difference when comparing it to the minor league system of the MLB (as noted above). With this system in place, teams always have positioning to jockey for, whether it’s to be promoted, to avoid relegation or to qualify for a specific cup tournament (more on those below).

Player Transactions

The player trade system found in sports like the MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL here in the U.S. is almost non-existent in European football. Instead, clubs are able to buy players from each other, assuming each side comes to an agreement. Most player contacts are setup to include a specific buy-out clause, especially for higher profile players, so that any team interested in acquiring them will need to shell out some serious money. Players can still be traded, but it’s incredibly rare.

These kinds of player transactions are negotiated on essentially all year, but there only exists two separate transfer windows where finalized deals are able to process and a player switches teams. One window takes place from June to August, while the other is from January to February.

Of course, this system favors richer clubs, though a rule called Financial Fair Play attempts to remedy this issue by only allowing clubs to spend a certain amount depending on their revenue. If teams break this rule, they receive fines in the tens of millions of euros, though it’s hardly a strong deterrent as clubs still break it (knowingly) from time to time.

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The Cup Tournaments

In addition to the regular season, there are a host of separate cup tournaments which take place throughout the year that pit clubs from each of Europe’s leagues against each other. For instance, the UEFA Champions League features top finishers in all of Europe’s premier divisions, allowing a team like La Liga’s Barcelona to face off against the Premier League’s Liverpool.

Cup tournamentGettyImages

Cup tournaments aren’t just for top-flight clubs, either. Others, such as UEFA’s Europa League, give lower-ranked teams the ability to play more throughout the year and an opportunity to play for a trophy.

There are also country-specific tournaments open to all league teams within that country. Take Spain’s Copa del Rey, for example. This tournament not only features teams in La Liga, but also from Spain’s lower divisions, as well. The FA Cup in England is similar, pitting Premier League teams against EFL Championship teams and other lower divisions.

How to Qualify

Qualifying for each tournament comes down to a club’s prior season standing, as well as how they fared in certain tournaments the previous year. Some qualifications do preclude a club from being in another tournament, as well. For example, UEFA Champions League teams are ineligible to play in the UEFA Europa League.

Winning Tournaments Matters

Winning a tournament is often equal, if not more important, to a club than winning its own league. Let’s revisit the 2019 Manchester City and Liverpool example above. Though Liverpool barely lost the Premier League title that year, the club did go on to win the Champions League, and did so by beating a who’s who of European powerhouses including Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur. They may not have hoisted the Premier League trophy but they were crowned champions of Europe – not a bad trade-off.

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How to Pick a Team to Root For

Now the fun part: Picking a team to root for. Since there’s hardly any rhyme or reason behind a decision, picking a team often comes down to your own personal preference. Perhaps you gravitate toward larger than life stars like Barcelona’s Leo Messi or Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. You might even prefer to root for a team from a country you’ve visited or a place where you have ancestral ties. It’s entirely up to you.

Juventus jerseyGettyImages

To speak from my own experience, the choice boiled down to who I rooted for in the MLB, the Boston Red Sox. Though it seems odd that my favorite baseball team influenced which European football club I latched onto, it makes perfect sense: Red Sox parent company, Fenway Sports Group, also owns the English club, Liverpool. To keep my fandom in the family, the choice was easy; I became a Liverpool supporter.

Of course, the decision to pick a team won’t always be this cut and dry but there’s nothing holding anyone back from rooting for whichever club they please. Take time to research which clubs immediately stick out to you and decide from there. Watch matches of theirs, get to know the players, see what their jersey combinations look like – these are all major influencing factors. Remember, you’ll be sticking with this team through thick and thin.

Once you’ve found a team to adopt, take a look at their team history. You’ll feel more invested on gameday if you understand their rivalries and what might be on the line during the match. Buy a jersey, too – it always helps to look the part.

Gameday Routine: How and Where to Watch

Though there’s no wrong way to watch European football, it’s much better to do so surrounded by fellow supporters of your team. The best way to do this is to look up whether your city has any sort of group dedicated to watching the matches each week. A quick Google or Facebook search should turn up a few options, and many groups even have a dedicated bar or restaurant they meet at.

Even if there isn’t a dedicated group nearby, you should still be able to find other fans of your club and could even setup watch parties on your own. Some matches do start as early as 4:30 in the morning, so we wouldn’t blame you if you chose to watch 90 minutes of your team while still in bed.

If watching at home is more your speed, make sure you’re set up with a sports package on your preferred streaming device. Most Premier League matches air on NBC Sports, while Champions League play runs on TNT. Other channels like ESPN and Fox Sports also air their fair share of soccer matches, so picking one over the other depends on which team you want to watch.

There’s certainly a lot to learn about European football but like any sport, the more you devote time to it, the easier it becomes to follow. Plus, it’s not an entirely foreign game. Even casual fans of the MLS (or anyone who played youth soccer) should already know much of how it works in the first place. Sure, there’s still a learning curve but once you start watching and truly embrace a team to call your own, there are few sports that stir up as much matchday energy as European football.

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