The casual World Cup fan’s guide to European club soccer

Paris Saint Germain's Kylian Mbappe, right, and teammate Neymar. (Francois Mori/AP)

So, you watched the World Cup. Perhaps it stirred up the soccer supporter in you, left you wanting more. Now what?

Luckily, there’s a fresh new season of European club soccer just around the corner. If you fancy yourself a footy fan now but aren’t quite sure where to start, we’ve got you covered with our pitch primer to set you up for your newfound fandom.

Let’s begin with the basics:

World Cup vs. club soccer: What’s the difference?
If you loved the drama and excitement of the World Cup, you’ll really love watching club teams battle it out. Generally speaking, club soccer is more offensively-driven than the international game, as the World Cup format forces teams to play a more conservative style in a bid for survival in a tournament that features very little room for error — kind of like a chess match.

The Big Five of UEFA
When we’re talking about club soccer, we’re talking about the Big Five of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA): Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy), Bundesliga (Germany) and Ligue 1 (France). Most leagues begin in early August, with Bundesliga kicking off the season a few weeks later.

Schedule & standings
Each league features 20 teams, playing 38 games each (The exception here is Bundesliga, with 18 teams and 34-game seasons). There are no playoffs, so the league champion is determined simply by the standings and can therefore even be declared with several weeks left in the season, like we saw with Manchester City’s landslide Premier League win in 2017-18. Each match win gets you three points, a draw gets you one and a loss gets you zero. If a tiebreaker is needed to determine final standings at season’s end, it’ll go down to goal difference.

Relegation is the best motivation
This is one of the best parts of club soccer, as it keeps things competitive even among the basement-dwelling teams. Each season, the three teams at the bottom of the standings are demoted to the second-tier league.

You have to earn back the right to play in the top league of the nation, which is where promotion comes in. Just as three teams are relegated each year, the top three teams from the second-tier league land a spot in the nation’s top league the following season.

How does a transfer work?
When a player under contract is dealt from one team to another, it’s called a transfer. While player-for-player swaps do happen from time to time, it’s most often money that’s changing hands in these situations — and lots of it. This is known as the transfer fee, the amount of which varies depending on the value of the player. Essentially, a team is buying the rights to a player from another club, which can be within the same league or outside of it.

Unlike in most pro sports leagues, the purchasing team acquires the player and not his contract. He’ll sign a new one with his new team, the terms of which are generally figured out between club and player prior to the official completion of the transfer (This gives players plenty of power in these scenarios, as a transfer won’t go through unless a player indicates he’ll sign with the new club).

No salary cap = more super teams
Because there’s no CBA in club soccer — and as a result, no salary cap or transfer fee limit — we often see the same teams top the standings thanks to ownership’s deep pockets, which makes it harder for lower-budget teams to break into contention and even tougher to stay there. This gives more control to star players in choosing their destination, and more must-watch super teams for fans.

Why loan a player?
Rather than spending the majority of the season on the bench with a really deep team (like, say, Real Madrid), a young player in need of some seasoning can be loaned to a team where they’ll be guaranteed to get plenty of playing time and in-game experience.

Alright, what are we playing for?
Winning your league title is an incredible achievement, but a Champions League title is what most pro soccer players dream of. Essentially, this is a season-long championship to determine the best club team in all of Europe each year. The stakes are always higher in these games, as teams are pitted against the top competition from every league on the continent.

Four of the five major leagues in UEFA get four Champions League berths each year (Ligue 1 has three), determined by the top four teams in the standings from the prior season (i.e., Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool were the top four Premier League teams in 2017-18, and they’ll compete in the Champions League over the course of the 2018-19 campaign). Winners of smaller UEFA leagues are also represented.

Watching Champions League will expose fans to more players from lesser-known leagues, not just the big five, which is also a bonus.

So, which league should you watch?
Each league is known for a different style of play, featuring a different set of powerhouse clubs and a rotating cast of superstars. You can love ’em all, or devote your fandom to just one. Here’s a brief breakdown:

Premier League: England
League starts: Aug. 10

Why you’ll love it: In addition to the fact it’s easily the most accessible and widely-watched league for those of us on this side of the pond, Premier League is known for fielding an offensively driven game that also tends to be slightly more physical as officials are prone to let things slide more so than in other leagues.

Watch it for: If you loved England’s run to the World Cup semifinal, you should be watching Premier League. Every single English starter during the World Cup plays for a Premier League club, so you’ll see plenty of familiar faces. While the league attracts lots of homegrown talent, its selection of superstars is diverse. French midfielder Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Belgian forward Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Egypt’s Mo Salah (Liverpool) are three major reasons to tune in every week.

Serie A: Italy
League starts: Aug. 18

Why you’ll love it: De-fence! De-fence! Historically, sound defence is in Italian soccer’s DNA. In fact, many of the world’s top defenders have suited up in Serie A at some point in their career to hone their craft. So if you appreciate a fine blue line, this is the league to keep an eye on.

Watch it for: Cristian Ronaldo. He’s won everything there is to win in the Premier League with Manchester United, and the same goes for his nine years spent with Real Madrid in La Liga. Now, he’s taken his talents to Italy, where he agreed to a four-year contract with Juventus after the powerhouse Serie A club shelled out a whopping €105-million transfer fee.

La Liga: Spain
League starts: Aug. 18

Why you’ll love it: Soccer is a beautiful game to watch, and the Spanish league might just capture that best, with its emphasis on the technical side of the sport. It’s also a possession-driven league, showcasing pure skill above all else.

Watch it for: The greatest player in the world (*ahem*, not named Ronaldo, of course) and potentially the greatest player this year. Lionel Messi is the force that has kept Barcelona atop La Liga’s standings and is a must-watch every time he hits the pitch. Then there’s Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić, who earned the World Cup Golden Ball as the tournament MVP and has a strong case to win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player of 2018, too.

Ligue 1: France
League starts: Aug. 10

Why you’ll love it: The French league is known for its ability to develop and export young talent, showcasing speed and raw athleticism in spades. Lots of up-and-coming players, many of whom come over from African countries, cut their teeth in France before moving on to more prominent pitches to claim their fame.

Watch it for: Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old French phenom who earned comparisons to Pele during France’s World Cup-winning run. He’s reportedly staying with Ligue 1 powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain for the upcoming season, suiting up alongside the league’s biggest star, Neymar, who brings equal parts dazzle and drama to the pitch.

Bundesliga: Germany
League starts: Aug. 24

Why you’ll love it: In terms of its dominant playing style, Bundesliga features a little bit of everything — technical skill, offensive attacks, and so on. It’s not as prominent here in North America as the Premier League is, but it’s quality viewing for footy faithful.

Watch it for: Bayern Munich. This historic club are the giants of German soccer, headlined by stars like forwards Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, and midfielder James Rodríguez.

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