Soccer Pyramids Around the World

The infrastructure that soccer is set up upon is an intricate and confusing thing to learn, but the way it all fits together is remarkable and makes for a universally connected landscape.  There are countless organizations and competitions that make up the world of soccer, and in this blog post I will make it clear which is which and where is where.

First of all, there are two categories of soccer competition: club and international.  International competitions include, but are not limited to, the Euro tournament, the World Cup, the Olympics, the Confederations Cup (played before the World Cup as an “appetizer”), and the Gold Cup (the North American version of the Euros.  International teams are teams made up of players from the same nationality and called up by their country to play.  Club teams are businesses, like the member clubs that make up the NBA and NFL, and can employ players of any nationality, although some countries have sanctions that protect domestic jobs.

Club soccer in each country consists of three competitions and three corresponding trophies, the league, Domestic Cup, and continental cup.  The names of these vary from country to country, for example the top league in England is the English Premier League, the continental trophy is the UEFA Champions League, and the Domestic Cup is called the English FA Cup.  The league is the top flight league within the system of promotion and relegation in that country.  Promotion and relegation is a system in which the three worst teams in each league move down (relegated) into the next lesser league and the top three teams move up into the next highest league.  Promotion and relegation is used in almost every country in the world except for the United States and Australia.  The Domestic cup is a trophy that can be won by any team in any division within a certain country.  In England there are over 400 clubs that compete in its domestic cup, both professional and amateur teams, the FA Cup.  In the United States, the top league is called Major League Soccer and the domestic cup is called the US Open Cup. Since the US is in North America, it is governed by CONCACAF and its clubs participate in the continental competition CONCACAF Champions League if they qualify.

Secondly, there are 6 major organizations that oversee each continent at both the club and international level.  These organizations are CONMEBOL (South America),
CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North America), UEFA (Europe), AFC (Asia), and OFC (Oceania).  These are FIFA confederations.  FIFA, or Federation Internationale de Football, is the governing body of all soccer around the world.  Not every country is a member of FIFA, but an overwhelming majority of countries are.

Winners of league cups and domestic cups automatically qualify for continental competition.  There are 6 continental competitions that correspond to the 6 FIFA confederations.  In order to qualify for these competitions a team must do one of the following:

1)      Finish in the top 2, 3, 4, or 5 (varying depending on coefficients, numbers of teams that qualify, for each country) of the top league.

2)      Win the domestic cup

3)      Win the League Cup (if that country allocates continental qualification to the winner)

4)      Win the Champions League playoff (if the country uses one)

A continental competition is called the Champions League.  There is a Champions League for every confederation (example: CONCACAF Champions League, UEFA Champions League, etc.).  There are then 6 winners of these tournaments.  These winners then qualify for the Club World Cup, and compete head-to-head for that title.

The winner of the Club World Cup was most recently Bayern Munich of Germany.  They qualified by winning the UEFA Champions League of 2013, which they qualified for by winning the Bundesliga (Germany’s top flight league) in 2012.  This team also happened to win both the domestic trophy in Germany (the DFB Pokal) that year, completing what is known as a Treble.  The Treble is one of the biggest honors a club team can win.

The format that soccer uses serves to unite the world politically via competition in the sport that unites the world on a cultural level.


Closed Leagues vs. Open Leagues

One of the biggest differences between the way the United States sees sports and how the rest of the world does is the difference between open and closed leagues.  Every American sports uses a closed-league system, a format in which a league is a single entity that controls all transactions and interactions within the teams that consist of it.

For example, the NFL is a signle business that owns all 32 teams within the league.  There are owners of each individual teams that make money from the club, but the NFL oversees the 32 teams.  The biggest competitive obstacle in the NFL is the salary cap.  Fitting a team capable of winning the Super Bowl into salaries that add up to an amount under the salary cap is extremely difficult.  The mechanisms of salary caps, trades, and drafts seem fundamental and essential to American sports, but this is not the only way sports are formatted.  In soccer leagues around the world, each club is a business in itself and transactions are handled on a free market where law, not policy, is what regulates interaction between teams for the most part.  FIFA regulations also govern transactions between teams.  Open-league systems have no salary cap and are tasked with signing players without the help of drafts or other kinds of allocations (Open Competition).

There are several pros and cons that come with these differences in format.  A soccer parallel for this is the United States’ Major League Soccer and how it compares to the rest of the world.  MLS started in 1996 is currently in its 19th year.  It was come a long way in 19 years but still has a long way to go when considered against the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, or Germany’s Bundesliga.  Major League Soccer operates under a closed-league system, just like the NFL or NBA.  There is a draft for players coming out of college each year, a salary cap, and trades can be blocked or manipulated by the league’s hierarchy.  When an MLS player is wanted by a foreign team, that team must negotiate with MLS to sign him, not the team that the player plays for because players sign contracts with the league and then are placed onto a team.

In a closed league it takes a lot of ingenuity to piece salaries together and make smart trades to win a league that every single team in the same has the tools to win.  That dynamic has value and it is what makes the NFL, MLB, and NBA so much fun to follow.  However, basketball, football, and baseball are dominated by their respective leagues around the world, while soccer is not monopolized by anything around the world.  In the scope of MLS, if the American league wants to grow more, the closed-league system is holding it back.

The problems with the converse, an open-league system, are harder to be found but are significant.  An open-league system requires teams to be competitive financially, which as mentioned in previous commentary on this blog lends itself to more competition on the field, so these thing go hand in hand.  Several English teams have seen financial crisis as they have been incapable of competing anymore, one of the most notable cases of this has been Portsmouth FC’s (England) rapid decline over the last 10 years.  The club experienced liquidation and quickly moved down the hierarchy of English football.  Owners in the United States do not find this appealing, especially when the country’s sports climate is so congested.  With so many sports existing in the US, it is very difficult for soccer to grow, which makes a closed-league system advantageous.  Some American clubs simply would not survive under an open league, teams with small attendance numbers and more loosely-committed ownership would be much less likely to survive a free market’s demands (Open Possibility).

The vast differences between these two types of league formats make the world of soccer interesting to compare to the rest of sports.  Both have very exciting characteristics, and soccer would certainly not be the same without promotion and relegation and an open-league format.


1. Szymanski, S., Ross, S. (2000, September) Open Competition in League Sports. Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from:

2. Ciapala, D. (2012, July 31) Is Open League Soccer a Possibility in the United States? Yahoo! Sports. Retrieved from:–mls.html


Football League Cup

As Jonathan De Guzman fired his penalty kick into the net to make the score 4-0 at historic Wembley Stadium, a merely academic 30 minutes remained in the Football League Cup against lowly Bradford City of the Football League 2, England’s 4th tier of soccer.  Bradford’s somber end came in a 5-0 defeat in front of nearly 83,000.

Bradford’s conquest of the country took them through the likes of Premier League heavyweights Arsenal, by penalty shootout, and Aston Villa.  Add that to a win against Championship side Wigan Athletic in the 4th round of the League Cup and it makes for an incredible Cinderella story of a near-amateur club so close to touching the English domestic cup and experiencing the glory and pageantry that comes with it.  Their run finally was ended at the hands of Swansea, of the English Premier League, in the final (Bradford).

England’s Football League Cup creates an exciting story like Bradford’s almost every year at some level, only very few teams can reach all the way to the final and even fewer have the strength to win it.  While England, and the rest of Europe, has a league system that is designed to find a true winner throughout a long season, more cardiac drama can be found in England’s domestic and league cups, the FA Cup and the Football League Cup.

What sets these competitions aside from a playoff league format or single-elimination tournament, like NCAA’s March Madness, is that these clubs are affected by the markets they operate in.  A club like Arsenal is in a financial climate high above that of Bradford City, which makes it all the more spectacular when Bradford, who have no business being on the same pitch as Arsenal, can bring a team to fight through 120 minutes and beat them in the penalty shootout.

As mentioned in the Soccer Pyramids section, the League Cup explained here, and Bradford’s run in the 2012-13 season, is a competition where all 92 teams that make up England’s first 4 tiers compete.  The winner advances to the UEFA Champions League, a European competition.  The other cup, the FA Cup, involves more than 400 teams all across the entirety of England.


1. Ladyman, I. (2013, February 24). Bradford’s pride takes a pounding but fans salute fallen heroes as Swansea lift cup. Daily Mail. Retrieved from: