A Soccer Primer

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareI realize that many people may not follow soccer and wonder what all the hubbub is about. There is also some confusion as to the structure of leagues so I will clear all that up with a short, informative post.

Chelsea's giant Czech goal keeper - 6'5" Petr Cech.

Chelsea’s giant Czech goal keeper – 6’5″ Petr Cech.

Soccer is played without the hands in which players attempt to kick, head, or otherwise project a ball into a goal that is 8 feet tall by 24 feet wide. That may sound large but in professional soccer the goal is usually protected by an athlete over 6’6″ tall who can  use his hands and could easily have played tight end or center for a professional sports team. The field is 100 meters long and generally about 70 meters wide. Beside the goal keeper there are 10 players on each side generally arranged with three or four defenders, up to five midfielders, and several forwards. In Europe and South America these are athletes with 4.3 speed and a vertical leap to rival the best of American football players. Good games can have scores of 2-1 or 4-3 or so, but I’ve seen scores on the order of 10-1, 2-2, 0-0 and everything in between.

England FA LogoThe leagues are much different than American leagues but all of them have the same structure. Generally there is a top division with up to 20 teams. In England this is called the Premier Division. In Germany is it called the Bundesliga. Italy calles it Serie A, in Spain it is LIBA BBVA, and in France it is Ligue 1. Nearly every country in the world has a premier division followed by many, many divisions all the way down to the non-professional local leagues. In England the second division is known as the Championship League, in Germany it is the Bundesliga 2, and so on. The leagues are generally administrated by some kind of over-arching body. England calls theirs the Football Association or FA. It’s been around for a long time. These clubs can have players from any country and competition is fierce for the best players that can command salaries up to $500,000 a week.


Sunderland earns a valuable point to avoid relegation. Looks like the coach could probably still be a player.

Now here is the really interesting part – relegation. Every year the bottom two or three teams in every division are demoted into the next league down. At the same time, the top few teams are moved up into the league above them. This goes for all league levels throughout the country. Theoretically it is possible for a small village team that keeps winning to, over several years, move into the very top division. Likewise, top teams can get into financial trouble or have a spell of bad luck or bad coaching and plummet into lower divisions with a sizable loss of fortune, quality, and top players. Some of the best games are between teams in relegation battles or between teams hoping to move up. Unlike the NFL, say, where teams can stay in the cellar for years, in soccer you get kicked out. There are no polls and position is determined by a simple points system: 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, 0 for a loss. This ensures a constant supply of new blood and new talent to keep competition fierce.

Hoffenheim celebrates a goal.

Hoffenheim celebrates a goal.

For example, the German team Hoffenheim was never anything more than a non-professional local team based at the small village of Hoffenheim. Around 2000, Deitmar Hopp, a principal of the software giant SAP, returned to the team of his youth. Through significant financial backing Hoffenheim is now in the Bundesliga’s top division. On the flip side, the English team Portsmouth spent many a year in the top flight only to crash out several years ago, falling each year into a lower league of English soccer. I think they are four leagues down now and still in search of winning ways.

The Allianz Arena In Munich, Germany, home of the Munich Bavarians (Bayern Munchen.)

The Allianz Arena In Munich, Germany, home of the Munich Bavarians (Bayern Munchen.)

My favorite team since I was a boy is Bayern Munchen or, The Munich Bavarians who play in the German Bundesliga. This year they won their league, won the DFB cup, and won the Champions League in a rare performance known as a treble or triple. I also enjoy Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham in the English League. I don’t follow other leagues very closely. Incidentally, if I lived in England, liking those three teams would be impossible. Fortunately Americans can like who they want without the baggage or the threat of bodily harm.

Arjen Robben

Arjen Robben celebrates after scoring a last minute goal that won Bayern Munchen the 2013 Champion’s League

Outside the leagues, the club teams participate in tournaments that can last anywhere from a week to a year. The top teams from each country in Europe for instance, participate in what is called The Champions League (not to be confused with the second division English Championship League.) The Champions League is a year long tournament held between the best clubs from each country in Europe. They play every few weeks or every month or so, leading to a final that draws some of the largest viewing audiences on the planet. Likewise, the FA cup in England or the German Football Cup in Germany begins with every team in the nation at every level. Any team that keeps winning keeps moving to higher levels in the tournament. It is theoretically possible for a local, non-professional team to wind up playing Manchester United in Wembly Stadium for the final. This year, relegated Wigan defeated second place Manchester City in a dramatic finish. Nearly every country features this style of tournament that can have local boys playing against their favorite players making millions of dollars.

Spain celebrates after winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Spain celebrates after winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In addition to the club structure of each country, nearly every country on Earth has a “national team” made up only of citizens of that nation. This is in addition to each player’s club responsibilities. In Brazil, Germany, Italy, England, Argentina, Holland, and other countries, appointment to this team is a huge honor and winning is not optional. For instance, Germany’s national team is composed of players who play on a variety of club teams in Germany, England, Spain, and others. International tournaments such the World Cup or the Euro generally last two years and begin with round robin groups that lead to single elimination draws over an 18 month period. Those teams that survive then go to the month-long finals to fight for their nations. Currently Spain is ranked #1 and Germany #2. The US is ranked #28. Tournament games are played each month or so leading up to the final. World Cup 2014 is to be held in Brazil and teams are currently in round robin play to determine who will be invited to attend. Winning the right to host a world cup is significantly more prestigious than hosting an Olympics. As you can see, professional players on top clubs have a grueling schedule and play up to 60 games a year.

Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspurs, player of the year in the English Premier League.

Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspurs, player of the year in the English Premier League.

So that is international soccer. Clubs. National teams. Top athletes. Tournaments that can last two years. Big, big, big money. The drama is spectacular as one begins to learn about the players and their circumstances. More than a few of the greatest players began in mud huts in Africa. Most come from working class homes in the country of their choice striving for that all important try out with a big club. It is an honor reserved to a select few. It is, as I stated in an earlier post, the most desired job in the world. But for those of us who’s talent or circumstances prevent a professional stint, we can always watch… and dream.

Incidentally, NBC won the rights to televise English Premier League Soccer in America beginning in the fall of 2013. Soccer in America is about to undergo a transformation as it moves into prime time.

John C. Brewer is a lifelong soccer player, the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer