A Guide to the UEFA Champions League for American Football Fans

February 20, 2012

WARNING: I will use the term football to refer to both sports. I am trusting your ability to read in context.

First, some context: I love football (soccer). My girlfriend loves football (American). We managed to arrive at a compromise, where I support her teams and watch their games, and she does the same for mine. The following teams have gained a fan via this deal: AC Milan, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints. The following teams have gained an anti-fan (just as important): Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United, Juventus.

This post is mostly a recap of conversations we have had regarding the Champions League. The way I saw it, fans of both footballs should intuitively get the other football. And they can, with just a little work to understand real football’s premier showcase, the UEFA Champions League.

Are all the European countries represented in the Champions League? Can I see a Serbian team muck it up with the greatest club of all time, the almighty AC Milan?

Theoretically, but not in practice. While you will find the occasional Romanian team (Otelul Galati this year) and the dark horse Cypriot team (APOEL Nicosia), these teams are not guaranteed spots. Teams from smaller countries have to go through additional qualifying rounds. The Champions League, and its sister competition, the Europa League (Champions League for the mediocre) are the only opportunities for clubs from one country to play clubs from other countries. Football leagues are not similar to the AFC and the NFC in that way.

To answer your second question, yes. Red Star Belgrade’s victory in the Champions League just as Yugoslavia was on the brink of dissolution is quite the odd and not-entirely-uplifting story. You are right, of course, that AC Milan are the best and should win everything. Ever. Heaven would be like Groundhog Day but with Pippo Inzaghi as Bill Murray.

You guys’ seasons are very long. And there’s no post-season. What’s up with that? How does the Champions League fit into this?

Every European country has its own league. Unlike in the American version, the regular season goes on for 8-9 months. There is no pre-season or post-season. Broadly speaking, there is only season.

The Champions League overlaps with the regular season. The first half of the season corresponds to the group stages of the Champions League and the second half with the “play-offs.”

Who are the Champions? All this seems very complicated. If I wanted to pay attention to a zillion details, I could just watch baseball. What is this group stage you talked about?

You probably already know that football is more popular than baseball in the United States. You didn’t know that? Well, it’s true.

So, the group stages, here goes: Each country’s best teams get a shot at the following year’s Champions League. If you’re an English team, this means the best 4 teams this year make it to the group stage next year. If you’re Italian or Spanish, your best 3 teams qualify. If you’re French or German, the top 2 teams have a shot at the trophy and the ridiculous pots of money and advertising revenue that teams are entitled to. No team from country X will play another team from country X until the later stages of the competition. The number of slots for each country are allocated based on a co-efficient that UEFA made up. This is not a good topic of conversation around Germans. They got shafted. They don’t appreciate it.

Do you remember what the FIFA World Cup looks like in terms of organization? The Champions League is pretty much the exact same format. Group stage, second round, quarters, semis, and final. The only difference is that the group stage games and the second round (group of 16) games are two-legged. This means you play each opponent in your 4-team group at home and away. You can lose the first game 7:0 so long as you can beat the other team 8:0 in the return game. You have to be careful about the away goals issue though. Basically, what that means is that goals you score at your opponent’s stadium count more than goals you score at your home stadium, because away goals are counted in the case of a tie-break. If the score in the two games were 0:0 and 3:3, the away team in the second game wins! Even though the aggregate score is 3:3, they were able to overcome home field advantage and get to have their goals count for double in case of a tie.

You get the same number of points in the group stage as the FIFA World Cup: 3 for a win, 1 for a draw and 0 for a loss. After all the teams in the group have played each other twice, the top team on points automatically qualifies, along with a few of the best second placed teams. If teams are level on points, you look at their goal differential and head-to-head record. After the group stage, points don’t matter.

I don’t think I need to tell you how quarters and semis and finals work. That’s the exact same thing as the playoffs. But two-legged. The final is a single game though.

Wait, wait, hold up. The following year’s Champions League? Why doesn’t the sport reward you immediately for having a great season? SOCIALISM!!!!!

The fact that you’re playing in the Champions League this year only means your club did very well last year. It doesn’t mean your club is necessarily doing well this season. You could be like the Galician club Celta Vigo who reached the quarter finals of the 2003-2004 Champions League in the same season that they got relegated from the Spanish Liga!

It takes a lot of money to compete in Europe, much more than it takes to compete in your national league. This puts added pressure on teams, who already have to deal with the summer and winter transfer windows where they may lose or be forced to sell their best players.

Think of it in the following American football terms: You might end the season having swept the league with Eli Manning as your quarterback, but only so-so running backs. Then in the transfer window, you have the option of keeping Eli and getting some running backs for the playoffs. Or Manning’s contract is about expire and you could either lose him as a free agent. Alternatively, you might decide sell him a year before that happens so you can make a profit on his sale. In the process, however, there is a risk that you might end up selling Eli and getting Tim Tebow or Rex Grossman or someone else who sucks.

If you’re a crazy person like Wolfsburg’s Felix Magath, you may end up replacing two-thirds of your team midway through the season. Transfer windows (there are two!) are so much fun!!!

Basically, what this means is “the club don’t got to dance with the players who brung you to the Champions League (unless you want to).” Contrary to what you might think about Europe, football is all about capitalist excess and options. In fact, this is why it’s surprising that more Americans aren’t yet into the game. Where else can you sell a player for $100 million in an environment of weak unions, poor regulation and no salary caps (yet)?

Okay, I think I get how the season works. It seems like a lot of work being a football fan though. You have to follow so many separate things. Isn’t that exhausting?

Because there is no separation of season and post-season, all of this is happening simultaneously. You end up playing your regular season trying to fight for spots in next season’s Champions League while simultaneously reaping the rewards of having done well last year. Burnout is a huge factor, particularly for teams that are doing well in the Champions League. They have to play an extra game (Champions League games happen in midweek) in addition to their regular weekend game. They get very little time to rest. Other teams who don’t have that pressure end up catching up to them. That rollercoaster of emotion you feel over the course of the season is one of the big reasons why being a fan of a top football club is worth it.

Teams like Milan, Barca, Real, Chelsea, Bayern and others who often make it to the latter stages of the Champions League are engaged in a perpetual balancing act. They are like jugglers on top of a unicycle who are also getting knives chucked at them.

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