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How is European soccer structured with leagues and cup competitions?

The structure of European football is complex. Although governing body UEFA oversees continental competitions, individual nations are able to operate their domestic leagues and cups in a manner best suited to the country. This has created a range of differing leagues, as well as qualification processes for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

The structure of European football is complex. Although governing body UEFA oversees continental competitions, individual nations are able to operate their domestic leagues and cups in a manner best suited to the country. This has created a range of differing leagues, as well as qualification processes for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

There are 55 national association members in UEFA. Some of those are not even sovereign nations, such as Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands, while sovereign states like Monaco and the Vatican City are not represented. Some, such as Kazakhstan, are not geographically recognized as being in Europe. For some people, that's like having Australia compete in Eurovision…

Imagine if all 50 US states, plus territories like Guam and Puerto Rico, had their own governing bodies deciding how their soccer leagues – consisting of numerous levels – should operate. That is European football.

Bayern Munich became the only German club to truly master Europe’s complex system when it won the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League, as well as the Supercup, under Jupp Heynckes in 2012/13. - 2013 Getty Images

So how are domestic leagues structured?

With the exception of the small Alpine nation of Liechtenstein, all UEFA members run their own domestic league system. This is sometimes referred to as the 'pyramid', with a nationwide first division at the top. Below that, as the pyramid widens, is where things differ. Depending on population size and the number of clubs, divisions will either remain nationwide or eventually split to become regional. That creates the pyramid shape in a diagram.

Focusing on the top tier, the most common format consists of each team playing the other twice – once at home and once away – from fall to spring. Others in colder climates will perhaps run within a single calendar year or have an extended winter break to avoid playing in freezing conditions. In any case, it's three points for a win, one for a draw, and the team with the most points after all the games is the champion.

When it comes to teams tied for points, leagues define criteria to determine who is ahead. The first of those is often who has the higher goal difference (goals scored minus goals conceded) over the course of the season, followed by goals scored and so on. Some leagues, however, use the head-to-head record between rival teams as the first criteria after points, including away goals, before continuing with other season-spanning statistics. This has been known to go as far as the team with the fewest yellow cards. If needed, teams can also be separated by an additional one-off match, the drawing of lots, or a coin toss.

What may be considered the 'regular season' in the USA is in fact just 'the season' in most European leagues. For them, any reference to the 'play-offs' is usually to do with promotion and relegation (more on that later).

In the Bundesliga, 18 teams play a total of 34 matches each – two against each team, once at home and once away – in a random order set out by the fixture list. The English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1 – the other leagues considered Europe's "big five" – all consist of 20 teams, resulting in 38 rounds of fixtures.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, though. Scotland, for example, has three parts to its 'regular season'. Since the Scottish Premiership consists of only 12 teams, the first 22 rounds of fixtures see them play the customary home and away match against each other. They then play each other a third time, either home or away depending on how the fixtures are drawn.

Once 33 games have been played, the league 'splits' into two halves of six teams. Each club will then play five more matches against the other teams in their half. The champion is again the team that finishes with the most points, but teams cannot leave their half of the table. This can result in an odd situation where seventh place may have more points than sixth come the end of 38 games.

Watch: Promotion highs, relegation lows in 2016/17

Things are even more complex in Belgium. After 30 rounds of fixtures in the 16-team league, the top six then enter the championship play-offs. Their regular season points are halved as they begin a new mini league, playing home and away against each other to determine the champion and also European qualifiers.

As for the remaining 10, the bottom side is relegated but will still compete in the Europa League play-offs with the nine sides above them – as well as the top six teams from the second division. Those teams compete in four groups of four, the winners of which will play a semi-final and then a final for the right to face one of the teams from the championship play-offs for the chance to play in the Europa League. As long as everyone understands the rules, of course, in what is a particularly unusual system.

What is promotion and relegation?

The great difference with soccer in the USA and Major League Soccer, however, is the system of promotion and relegation.

In Europe, teams move between levels of the pyramid at the end of each season. That means a set number of clubs at the bottom end of a division (except in the bottom-most league) will drop into the one below. Sides finishing at the top end of all leagues – bar the top tier – will move up a level.

It will be no surprise, though, that things aren't quite that simple and are rarely uniform across leagues and countries. For example, the Bundesliga has two automatic promotion and relegation places. The top two sides at the end of the Bundesliga 2 campaign therefore replace the bottom two in the Bundesliga.

Joshua Kimmich was one of just four players who spent every single second of his team’s 34 Bundesliga games in 2018/19 on the pitch. - imago images / Sven Simon

There is one more spot available that isn't automatic. Since 2008, the team finishing third from bottom in the Bundesliga faces the side third in Bundesliga 2 over a two-legged play-off. The winner plays in the Bundesliga the following year. A similar practice is used in France's Ligue 1, although the team third from bottom there will face the winner of a series of play-offs between the sides finishing third to fifth in Ligue 2.

Across the remainder of Europe's "big five", they use another slightly different method. In the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, the bottom three teams are automatically relegated, but there are just two automatic promotion positions from the league below – the Championship, Segunda División, and Serie B respectively.

In England, the third team in the second-tier Championship plays sixth while fourth faces fifth in two-legged semi-finals, before a one-off final at Wembley to determine the third promoted team. In Spain, both semi-finals and the final consist of two legs.

Jürgen Klopp also lifted the national cup, the DFB Cup, during his time with Borussia Dortmund, going with two Bundesliga titles in the league. - 2012 AFP

In Italy, teams third through eighth in Serie B enter the play-offs. Fifth plays eighth and sixth hosts seventh over one leg. The winners then face a two-legged clash with either third or fourth, with the victors of those semi-finals contesting a two-legged final.

Similar patterns are found throughout the continent, and play-offs are usually seen as end-of-season highlights before the summer break.

Are the cups linked to the leagues?

While the MLS Cup is what decides the league's champion at the end of the regular season and play-offs, European cup competitions are nothing to do with the domestic leagues.

The limit of a league's involvement in a cup is often at what stage certain teams enter the draw, or who they can be drawn against.

Bayern Munich consistent continental performances ensure they are usually at the top end of the UEFA coefficient ranking for clubs, as is the Bundesliga for league rankings. - imago sportfotodienst

National cups are predominantly run by the national association, who nowadays tend to no longer run the top domestic leagues. In Germany, for example, the DFL (Deutsche Fußball Liga) controls the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, while the DFB (Deutscher Fußball-Bund, or German FA) organizes the nationwide third division and the cup – the DFB Cup (DFB-Pokal). Below the third tier, regional associations organize leagues under the umbrella of the DFB.

The national cup holds great prestige for teams and has often been in existence longer than the league system. Cups are usually knockout tournaments over one or two legs, culminating in an end-of-season final. The winners are often also rewarded with European qualification if not already achieved through their league position (more on that later).

A team that wins both the top division and cup in their country is said to have won the domestic double. In Germany this has happened 16 times, with Bayern Munich completing a league and cup double on 11 occasions. Three trophies is a treble, four a quadruple and so on.

There are sometimes also secondary cups. A league cup, organized by the league association, was once common but has started to fall out of fashion. From 2020/21, England will be the only nation among the top five to still hold a league cup.

Julian Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim benefited from an extra automatic qualification spot in 2018/19, having fallen to Liverpool in the play-offs the previous season after finishing fourth. - AMELIE QUERFURTH/AFP via Getty Images

There are also cups available solely to teams outside of the top division(s), or regional cups, often for non-professional clubs. Eligibility for these competitions, though, is as linked as leagues get to most cups.

And a special mention again to Liechtenstein. Although its teams compete in the Swiss league system, it does have its own domestic cup competition, allowing clubs from one of the world's two doubly landlocked countries a chance to compete in the Europa League under their national flag.

That is different from AS Monaco, though. Monaco is an independent nation but – due to its size – it has no professional domestic league or cup. This means that the club plays in the French system and represents France in Europe.

How does European qualification work?

'Qualification for Europe' may sound an odd phrase when you already play in Europe. It refers to being able to compete in one of the continental club competitions organized by UEFA. This does not include the European Championship, known as the Euros, which is for national teams.

Eintracht Frankfurt were given a place in Europa League qualifiers despite finishing seventh because Bayern also won the DFB Cup in 2018/19. - AFP/Getty Images

There are currently two Europe-wide club competitions: the Champions League and the Europa League. These will be joined in 2021 by the Europa Conference League as the third tier of European club football.

This is not to be confused with a domestic pyramid structure. There is no promotion or relegation between these leagues. Participation is based on the team's performances the previous season.

Qualification for these competitions is primarily decided by domestic league positions, although domestic cup competitions also usually offer a route into Europe. All this, however, depends on a country's UEFA coefficient.

This is a ranking based on the performances of clubs from each league in European competition over a set period. The higher ranked a league is, the more European qualification berths they're allotted.

Some of these berths earn teams the right to go straight into the competition itself, beginning in the group stage. Others still have to go through qualifying – consisting of up to five rounds – to reach that stage. So qualification for Europe sometimes means qualifying for the chance to qualify for Europe.

The Bundesliga has been a highly successful league in the UEFA Champions League - European football premier club competition. - imago

For the Champions League, the base ruling is that the holders and previous Europa League winners are joined by the champions of the top 10 ranked nations, the six runners-up from the top six, and the third and fourth-placed teams from the top four. Should the holders of the two European competitions already qualify via their league position, that opens up the opportunity for an extra club from another league to gain automatic entry.

The remaining six places are made up of teams that have gone through the qualification process.

The four champions from associations ranked 51-55 contest the preliminary round. One progresses to the first round and is joined by the 33 champions from associations 18-51 (except league-less Liechtenstein).

Seventeen victors advance to the second round and form what's known as the "Champions Path", joining the champions from associations 15-17. The runners-up from associations 10-15 also begin at this stage in the "League Path".

Ten champions and three non-champions progress to the second round. Two more champions from associations 13-14 join the former, while the latter have their numbers bolstered by the three runners-up from associations 7-9 and the two third-placed teams from 5-6.

The six champion winners then join the champions from associations 11-12 in the play-off round, while four non-champions compete amongst themselves for the right to play in the group stage.

How does European qualification work in Germany?

With the Bundesliga currently ranked among Europe's top four leagues, German clubs finishing in the top four can avoid an arduous qualification process by entering straight into the group stage.

Winning a domestic cup does not earn you a place in the Champions League, but it is one way of reaching the Europa League – formerly known as the UEFA Cup – which currently begins with 48 teams in its group stage.

RB Leipzig reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history in 2019/20. - Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

A similarly long qualification process is also needed there, consisting of a mix of cup winners from lower-ranked nations, teams finishing between second and sixth in their domestic league (depending on association ranking) and teams knocked out of Champions League qualification.

In Bundesliga terms, though, fifth place goes directly into the group stage alongside the DFB Cup winners, while sixth place has to begin in the second qualifying round. Should the DFB Cup winners finish fifth or better in the Bundesliga, the team in sixth will automatically enter the group stage and seventh place will go through qualifying.

With the introduction of the Europa Conference League in 2021, those rules will change and the third Bundesliga spot in the Europa League will be lost as teams are reduced. Instead, that team will contest the Conference League play-off round of qualifying.

It's a complicated process for those teams playing in lower-ranked leagues, but relatively straightforward for those in the Bundesliga due to the league's high standing on the continent.

What is a super cup?

So, there are leagues, cups, Champions Leagues, Europa Leagues, Conference Leagues – but what about a super cup, sometimes also written as 'supercup'?

There are both domestic and continental super cups.

For the latter, it consists of a one-off match on neutral ground between the previous winners of the Champions League and Europa League, being played early the following season. Note that the winner of the Champions League represents Europe at the FIFA Club World Cup regardless of the outcome of the UEFA Super Cup.

Domestically, not every country will hold a form of super cup, but it is generally contested between the winners of the league and the cup. In Germany, that sees the winners of the DFB Cup traditionally host the Bundesliga champions in the Supercup the week before the main season begins. In the event that one team wins both, the Bundesliga runners-up are next in line to compete.

Watch: Highlights of the season-opening 2019 Supercup between Dortmund and Bayern

The same happens in England, with the Community Shield played at Wembley between the Premier League champions and FA Cup winners in August.

In Italy, the Supercoppa Italiana is now generally held abroad and features the cup runner-up in the event of a domestic double. It is played either the week before the new season or in December/January, depending on its location.

Spain previously held their Supercopa over two legs. After one year with a one-off match at a neutral venue, they have now introduced a new format featuring four teams contesting one-legged semi-finals and a final featuring the Copa del Rey finalists and the next two highest-ranked league teams.

All in all, as is so often the case in Europe, things differ in every country. The principle remains the same, with domestic silverware and European qualification on the line. Knowing how teams in a specific country achieve that, however, requires a little bit of research.