One of the big advantages Association Football has over other versions of “football” with significant followings (notably rugby and gridiron, whose history and comparisons I wrote about here) is its beguiling simplicity. No “down-and-distance” rules, or “play-the-balls” infringements, or any other array of weird technicalities. The laws are straightforward; anyone can play anywhere; and the sport has a genuinely global reach (perhaps as a result) that none of the others remotely has (for all the pretension of super bowl “world champions” or rugby “World Cups”…)
Where Association Football gets complicated, however, is when it comes to working out what its various competitions are. North Americans rightly raise complete bemusement about working out what tournaments as bizarre as the “Europa League” or the “[Insert Sponsor Here/League] Cup” are – leaving quite aside the fact that Europe’s premier competition is neither for champions nor a league, and yet is referred to as the “Champions’ League”…
What is this all about?
As ever with anything originating in the British Isles, it is a good start to look at the history.
When associations, schools and clubs were finally getting their act together regarding the laws of the game (see aforementioned link), they also decided (albeit sporadically) that it would be a good idea somehow to determine the champion team. The obvious way was for the newly formed regulatory body, the Football Association (FA), to set up a knock-out (“straight elimination”) competition – two teams meet, one is eliminated and one advances, until you have two left in the “final”. The FA called this its “Challenge Cup”, referred to simply as the “FA Cup”, whose first Final was played in 1872.
As with rugby (again, see aforementioned link), there was a swift divide between the London-based “Football Association” (equivalent of the “Rugby Union”) and the needs of the more northern-based clubs in industrial areas. A knock-out competition was all very well for amateurs, but for professionals opting out of (typically industrial) careers whose clubs would pay them train and play full time, the risk that all that effort could be over after a single game was too much. What they required was a “Football League”, with a round-robin format meaning that you were not eliminated just for losing a single game, and thus that professionals would play for a whole season. Thus, they would play each other team in the League home and away, with the team with the best balance (initially determined by two points for a win, one for a draw, and goal average separating teams level) deemed the “champions”. Association Football, therefore, was lucky that the “Association” versus “League” division did not result in two different sports (as was the case with Rugby), but it did effectively result in two different champions – one for the originally amateur knock-out competition (the “Cup”), and one for the always professional round-robin competition (the “League”). Of course, (semi-)professional clubs were in fact already dominating the “Cup” by the time of the League’s first season in 1888-9.
This situation arose effectively by accident, but it is arguably advantageous. Most North American and Australasian sports combine both, having a “League” initially followed by play-offs (a “Cup”) based on final position in that League. There is one champion – actually, in effect, the winner of the “Cup”. This system has the advantage that there is a single champion each year (the New England Patriots are the current American Football champions; the Kansas City Royals the current Baseball champions; and so on). However, it has the disadvantage that a team which starts poorly can be out of the race right from the beginning, with no alternative competition available for them to win; and it can also be the case that the best team overall does not become the “champion” (the most obvious example being the 2007 New England Patriots, who became the first team ever to win 16 out of 16 regular season “League” games only to lose for the only time all season right at the end of the “Cup” play-offs, thus ending the season empty handed).
Clearly, there is a potential benefit in allowing an “upset champion” to maintain interest, but that is the beauty of the system accidentally adopted by Association Football in Britain – it in fact allows both. This is, perhaps, why almost every other country adopted the same system (one top “League”, one main “Cup”). At the end of any given season, the winner of the “League” is unquestionably the “champion” team in that country; however, any team which starts poorly still has the chance of competing to win the “Cup” (which starts half way through the season in England) – a significant consolation particularly in the case of the original, which has the added glamour of being the world’s oldest competition in the world’s most popular sport.
The first complication, though an understandable one, arose in the 1950s when different countries began to wonder how their “champion” teams would get on against each other. It was decided that each country’s champion team should play off against the others in Europe to decide the “European Champion club team”; and, indeed, that each country’s cup winner should do likewise. Inevitably in the case of a sport whose season lasts over nine months, however, this “play-off” series had to take place the following season, meaning in effect that each country’s champion (league winner) qualified for the following season’s “European Champions’ Cup”, and the cup winner qualified for the following season’s “European Cup Winners’ Cup”. For a variety of reasons and to cause a significant further complication, there emerged an additional, third competition (known latterly as the “UEFA Cup”) which came to be for clubs which had placed well in their league but not won it (the exact number varied depending on the success and size of each country and its league). Initially, all these competitions were knock-out but played over two legs (each team at home once), with a one-off Final at a neutral venue determined in advance in the case of the “European Champions’ Cup” and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup”.
This makes sense, but there also emerged an array of further competitions, often promoted by sponsors to make further money. One that stuck in England was the “League Cup” – highly confusing, as it was a “Cup” competition run by the “Football League” (whereas the “FA Cup” is run by the “Football Association”). Numerous countries also adopted what is normally known as a “Super Cup”, a play off between the “league champion” and “cup winner” played the following season (in England, this is played at the beginning of the season and is now referred to as the “Community Shield”); there is also a European version of this, initially a play-off over two legs between the “European Champions’ Cup” winner and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” winner. These games are all notably less prestigious, however, and the timing and even format of the various finals can change dramatically from year to year (as they have to fit in around the more established competitions).
Therefore, at national level, for all the attempts at additional competitions, it remains the case that the winner of the “league” is universally acclaimed as the “champion club” (regardless of other cups and subsequent follow-up competitions); additionally, the winner of the “European Champions’ Cup” (which came to be known simply as the “European Cup” given its status as the most prestigious European competition) was regarded as the “European champion club”. In each country, the “Cup” is clearly the second most prestigious domestic honour, though exactly how prestigious varies from country to country (and over time).
There has been a dramatic alteration in the European club competitions since the early 1990s. To add “interest” (er, money), the game’s governing body added a group phase to the “European Cup”. Initially this was only at the quarter-final stage (where teams were split into two round-robin groups of four, with the top two advancing to semi-finals which reverted for the most part to the usual two-leg format), then came to be used in two separate rounds, but it has settled for some time now at the last 32 stage only (thus eight groups of four with two advancing, and then knock-out over two legs as before from the last 16 onwards). The tournament also soon dropped the requirement for teams to be “Champions” (seeing the interest and, er, financial merit in “Real Madrid versus Juventus” or “Bayern Munich versus Manchester United” potentially taking place most seasons regardless of who had won last season’s league championships), now allowing up to the top four teams from the larger leagues to enter. In effect, the “European Champions’ Cup” merged with the “UEFA Cup” in modified format to form the “Champions’ League”, taking up more of each leading club’s time in international competition. For all that, there is no doubt the “Champions’ League” is now the predominant club competition in the global game.
This advance of the “Champions’ League” soon rendered the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” redundant, as many “cup winners” qualified for the so-called “Champions’ League” in any case. Thus, it was merged with the remnants of the “UEFA Cup” into an incredibly complex tournament, itself involving a group phase with 48 teams and additional teams added from those eliminated from the “Champions’ League”. This tournament is itself now known as the “Europa League”. No one is quite sure what the point of this competition is, aside from the Spanish club Sevilla, who seem to win it every year!
The complication does not end there either, of course, because on top of that there is international competition. This too used to be straightforward – every two years European teams would play off in groups of (recently) six or seven teams to reach, alternately, the 32-team World Cup or the 16-team European Championship, themselves played in the summer of even-numbered years with an initial group phase followed by straight single-game knock-out. This is about to be complicated too by the addition of a “Nations’ League” which no one understands, but which at least cannot be won every year by Sevilla.
Over time, domestically, “league championships” have come to predominate over the “cups”. This is notably the case in Germany (whose champion was decided by a series of play-offs based on regional round-robin competitions until the 1960s, but which now has the powerful 18-team “Bundesliga” at the top of its league system) and England (where the “Football Association” took over the running of the top division in 1992, now branding it the “Premier League” with 20 teams). Across Europe, Leagues vary in exact size (though 18-20 teams is now typical) and format (all now have three points for a win but some go to goal difference in the event of equal points, others use head-to-head records or single-game play-offs; promotion/relegation from other tiers also varies).
In Europe, there is now established in the media a so-called “Big Five” of leagues, although on the field this designation is dubious. There are in fact a “Big Four” – Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A. Added to this list often is France’s Ligue Un, but in fact French teams have only ever lifted two European club trophies of any kind, and France’s league trails behind Portugal’s even in current rankings. Another challenger would be the Netherlands, whose clubs have not seriously competed for honours this century but are among the most successful historically (particularly comparative to national population).
Frustratingly, perhaps, different countries also rate less established competitions differently. Spaniards take all of them, including “Super Cups”, fairly seriously. The English do not rate “Super Cups” at all, and some cast serious doubt over the “Capital One [League] Cup” in which bigger clubs currently tend not to field their best available teams; the “FA Cup” has unquestionably also diminished in value (whatever the broadcasters like to claim) since the establishment of the big-money Premier League also run by the FA.
(For the record, the Spanish language uses the word “campeón“/”champion” to refer to winning teams both in the league and in the cup – there is in Spain a “campeón de la liga” and a “campeón de la copa“. Most other languages reserve the word “champion” specifically for the league, thus having a league champion, and then referring distinctly to a cup winner.)
Though diminished, “Cups” are still important everywhere. Unlike North American sports, most leagues are now totally dominated by a small range of clubs (in the most extreme case, only two Portuguese League titles have been won by anyone other than Benfica, Porto or Sporting); although in most cases clubs can emerge apparently from nowhere to challenge over a period of time (such as Bayer Leverkusen or latterly Wolfsburg in Germany, or Chelsea and Manchester City in England). This relative domination means that “Cup” competitions (with the greater element of chance implicit within them) can be the only realistic way for clubs to attain wins in established tournaments.
Certain clubs also historically come to be good at one or the other, at least over a period. Athletic Bilbao has won the Spanish Cup more often than the mighty Real Madrid, yet has not been crowned “league champions” anything like as often (and not since the early 1980s); Tottenham Hotspur is a “Cup” team (ranking third in England historically for “Cup wins” with eight, but nowhere in the list of “league champions” with two), but Liverpool is a “league” team (ranking second for “league championships” with eighteen but behind Tottenham for “Cups” with seven). “Cup” wins do tend to be more evenly spread about – there is a greater degree of chance, after all, but in some ways (or at least in some conditions) that makes for greater interest.
In conclusion, it is complex. The addition – for reasons good or bad – of competitions themselves (such as “League Cups” and “Super Cups”, which for the record I personally ignore as they have no historical basis), or of complexities to existing competitions (such as the emergence of the mighty “Champions’ League” and the utterly confusing “Europa League”) does bewilder even seasoned followers of the game.
However, the existence of a “league” and a “cup” is a tried and tested system which allows the determination of a definite “champion team” while also allowing for the odd surprise tournament victory (as “cup winner”). Whatever happens to international competitions and various other sponsored club tournaments, the standard staple of a “league” and a “cup” will surely stand the test of time!