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With over four billion fans worldwide, there’s no doubt that soccer is the world’s most viewed and played sport—so why does becoming a true fan feel like such a massive hurdle? Surely, one answer is the size: spread across six continents and too many leagues to count, the sport can be completely overwhelming. But a good point of entry is to first understand UEFA, The Union of European Football Associations. UEFA is the administrative body which oversees traditional football/soccer, futsal (indoor soccer), and beach soccer in Europe and it is one of six continental branches of FIFA, the global administrative body of soccer. At its inception in 1954, there were only 25 member-states in UEFA, but that number quickly grew with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Today there are 55 member-states, and despite the administrative body being headquartered in Europe (Nyon, Switzerland), there are actually several members located in Asia as well.
There are several competitions held under the UEFA umbrella, but the most significant tournaments are, to many, the European Championship, Champions League, and the Europa League. The European Championship has been played every four years since 1960 and is a national competition—meaning that the teams represent each member-state and are assembled with the top talent within each state’s borders. Portugal overcame France with a score of one to nil in the most recent European Championship held in 2016. The Champions and Europa Leagues are annually played, club competitions (meaning players in these tournaments are not restricted to European nationalities, and rather play in the leagues within UEFA member-states). Although both events are highly prestigious, the Champions League is considered to be the top-tier European tournament, while the Europa League is considered to be second-tier. For the first time ever, the 2019 championship matches for both the Champions and Europa Leagues were comprised fully of U.K. teams, as Liverpool defeated Tottenham in the Champions League and Chelsea defeated Arsenal in the Europa League.
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Now that you know the basics, become an expert with a few updates meant to keep you up-to-date. Just last year, UEFA introduced the Nations League as another international competition which will largely replace friendly (exhibition) matches between member-states of UEFA. Successful teams in the Nations League will be rewarded with increased opportunities to qualify for the European Championship, raising the stakes of international UEFA matches relative to past years. This June, Portugal overcame the Netherlands 1 – 0 in the inaugural Nations League final.
Since the first European Championship in 1960, Spain and Germany are the winningest nations with three titles each, and only ten different countries have won the Championship in total. The Champions League—known as the European Cup until 1992—has a much greater distribution of titles, given that the event is annual. But with 13 total wins, Spanish Real Madrid remains the winningest and most storied club in the Champions League. Real Madrid’s estimated worth last year was a staggering $4.1 billion, making it the world’s highest-value football club. In this century alone, the club has won six Champions League titles, including a three-season streak from 2016-2018. On top of that, only seven club managers have ever won the Champions League as a player and a manager, and the most recent addition to that list was Real Madrid’s manager Zinedine Zidane. See here for Zidane’s incredible track record and bio.
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One big reason why these events may feel inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the sport are the nuanced differences in structure from tournament to tournament. The Champions League tournament begins with 32 teams which qualify based on their previous performance. The teams invited to play are the following: Champions League title holder, Europa League title holder, champions of 10 domestic European leagues, runners-up from six of those 10, third and fourth place invited from Spain, England, Italy, Germany, and six more teams from smaller leagues which follow a rigorous qualification path. After the teams are set, the 32 teams split up into eight groups of 4 and each team plays each other twice—once at home and once away. This is known as the Group Stage.
The top two teams from each group then move on to an elimination round where matchups are randomly paired, although the first-place from the group stage must be paired with a second-place team in the first elimination round. In the elimination rounds, the winner of each matchup is determined by the results of two full matches. If both teams win one match, the result is first decided by aggregate scoring comparisons in the series. That is to say, whoever has scored more goals moves on. If the aggregate scoring is also tied, the team which scored more goals as the away team will move on. Today, the concept of ‘away goals’ is heavily under-fire in many different leagues around the globe, and its days may be numbered. Finally, if the away goals are also tied, then the second match will go into extra time or eventually, penalty kicks. The final is determined by only one match, which usually takes place in a neutral location. That said, the 2012 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea took place in Germany and gave Munich the first home-field advantage since 1984, so this neutral custom is not always a guarantee.
The Europa League tournament begins with 48 teams which qualify on previous performance as well. The teams are invited if they are one of the following: domestic cup winners from 12 European leagues; fourth place from French league; fifth place in ‘top’ leagues (Spain, Germany, England, and Italy); 21 winners from a more rigorous play-off process preceding the tournament; 10 teams that failed to qualify for the Champions League through their playoff process. The 48 teams separate into 12 groups of four, where winners and second-place advance to elimination rounds in the same fashion as the Champions League. In the elimination rounds, however, the third-place finishers from the Champions League qualifying are also tossed into the Europa League elimination rounds, beginning with 32 teams (24 from Europa Group Stage, eight from Champions Group Stage). The remaining structure is identical to the Champions League, and the winner will be invited to the Champions League tournament the following year.