The Super Bowl is over, basketball and hockey are in their mid-season lulls, and baseball has yet to begin. You might now find yourself lamenting the temporary lack of excitement in your sporting world. Well, if you shift your attention across the Atlantic, you can plunge yourself into a sports world so intense, captivating, and all-encompassing, you’ll wonder how you spent your whole life until that point oblivious to its existence.
That’s certainly how I felt when I first discovered the world of European soccer a few years ago. Now, you might be familiar with soccer’s international competitions, most notably the World Cup. Club soccer, however, is a whole different ball game. After initially being exposed to it through the video game FIFA, I decided to check out the real thing. What followed was a seemingly endless discovery of the intricacies of a new world that never seemed lacking in excitement and intrigue. If you like fierce competition, intense drama, and impressive feats of athleticism, there’s no way you won’t fall in love, too.
The club soccer setup in Europe is vast. Almost every country has its own system of leagues, but the top five are England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and Germany’s Bundesliga.
Each league is compelling in its own right. The Premier League is widely considered the most competitive, as six powerhouse teams consistently compete for the championship. La Liga offers one of the biggest rivalries in sports: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. You can marvel at the fantastic play of rising Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappé in Ligue 1, watch Cristiano Ronaldo ply his trade for Juventus in Serie A, and follow the of American talent in the Bundesliga.
If that sounds like many statistics and players to follow, that’s because it is. One of the most exciting aspects of European soccer is the endless storylines, generated primarily by the sheer number of players and level of competition across all the leagues. Unlike American sports, in which teams usually compete for one championship at the end of the season, a top-level soccer club often competes for at least three trophies throughout the year.
First, there is the domestic league competition, in which the twenty or so teams in a league (i.e. the Premier League) battle for the most points over a season that lasts from August to May (a team gets three points for a win, one for a tie, and none for a loss). Unlike American sports leagues, the season does not culminate in playoffs; instead, the team with the best record at the end of the season lifts the trophy, giving each game added significance.
The playoff aspect of the club landscape comes from the cup competitions. Most leagues have a domestic cup competition in which teams from the multiple leagues in the country play elimination games until one emerges as a winner. Then there’s the trans-European cup competitions, the most prestigious of which is the Champion League. It pits Europe’s best teams across all leagues against one another for the claim of the best team in Europe.
What I love most about following soccer is that there is never a lull. From August to May, club teams compete. The end of club season then inaugurates international tournaments, which take place during that two month summer window. The World Cup is the most well-known of such competitions, but in the off years, there are tournaments like the European Championship and the Copa América, which showcase the best national teams in Europe and South America respectively.
Another feature of the summer “offseason” is the opening of the transfer window. For two months in the summer (and January), clubs are allowed to sign new players and offload unwanted ones. The system of moving players looks very different from that in America, where trades and free agency rule the market. In soccer, these types of deals are rare, as clubs will usually offer cash for players and renegotiate that player’s contract after the selling club has accepted the money. This often leads to an exciting bidding war between buying clubs for some of the best players in the world. Last summer’s highlight was Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning $140 million from Real Madrid to Juventus.
So, that is a very brief rundown of all there is to know about European soccer. If you’re intrigued (how could you not be?) you might be wondering how you should orient yourself in such a complex universe. I would suggest picking one team and going all in to learn about the soccer world from that perspective. The team could be from any of the big five leagues, but picking from the Premier League might be your best bet, as it is the most competitive and the most accessible on American TV, and, thus the easiest to attach yourself to. Once you pick a team, you can quickly invest yourself in their players and the team’s performances. Then, if you’re looking for a fun way to go deeper, you can tune into , a podcast and TV show in which soccer journalists Roger Bennett and Michael Davies hilariously analyze events in the soccer world.
Of course, the soccer world is not a perfect place. The nature of the transfer market (how teams acquire players) means the richest teams are the most successful, because they can afford the best players. This practice usually leads to the same group of teams winning year in and year out. Additionally, soccer has challenges concerning racism. Soccer teams, however, are often comprised of players from around the world. As a result, soccer can facilitate beautiful interactions between cultures, a phenonmenon that does not occur on such a scale in American sports. One need look no further than Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah’s on the perception of Islam in England following his 2017 breakout season at Liverpool last year to understand.
For all these reasons and more, European soccer is a great way to fill your sports lull — and it might just become your favorite sport to watch. It certainly did for me.