Soccer Academy 104: Leagues, Teams & Tournaments

Soccer is truly the world’s sport. Every country on Earth plays “the beautiful game,” and there are officially 211 countries and territories that are members of FIFA. Due to soccer’s expansive reach, there are innumerable leagues and teams that FIFA officially oversees. Most regions in which soccer is played have more than one league, and there is no set bar or limit for the number of teams in a league. Therefore, there truly are too many leagues and teams to count, and it becomes even more blurred once semi-professional leagues and non-FIFA leagues are introduced. However, there is no question which leagues have the highest quality of gameplay and players. The best men’s leagues in the world are primarily first division European leagues, although South American leagues have had world-class teams in the past, and Asian and North American leagues, including MLS, have been attempting to improve in quality and status in order to challenge the European leagues in recent years. But certainly, as of right now and over the past few decades, Europe has been the place to watch. So, without further ado, here are the best and most famous men’s soccer leagues in the world today.

Premier League

The most popular league in the world is unequivocally England’s first division, known as the English Premier League. Officially founded as the Premier League in 1992, England’s top flight of soccer is not only home to some of the most famous soccer teams of all time, including Manchester United, but it is also a financial hub to which players, coaches, and investors tend to flock. The league is incredibly competitive, for there are many teams of great quality each season. In fact, four different teams have won the league in the past five years, and only once in the past ten years has a team won back-to-back league titles.

Popular Teams: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers

La Liga

Home to two of the greatest soccer teams of all time, provider of one of the strongest rivalries in sports, and creator of some of the best players of all time, La Liga is as incredible a league as there could be. The Spanish first division has seen the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and, of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. All of these players played for either Barcelona or Real Madrid and took part in Él Clásico. Barca and Madrid usually finish at the top of the table, although Atlético Madrid often puts up a fight and even won in the 2013/14 season. Regardless of who wins though, La Liga is, without a doubt, one of the most historic and legendary soccer leagues in the world.

Popular Teams: Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Getafe, Real Betis, Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Valencia, Villarreal

Bundesliga

The German top flight often rivals the Premier League in terms of competitiveness, although one team always seems to come out on top. Bayern Munich is currently the dominant force in the Bundesliga, having won the last eight league titles. However, Borussia Dortmund often challenges for the title as well, something it did successfully twice in the early 2010s, while teams like Borussia Mönchengladbach and RB Leipzig have challenged for the title as well in recent seasons. Unlike the other leagues on this list that have 20 teams, however, the Bundesliga only has 18 teams and, thus, 34 games, making the Bundesliga season slightly shorter.

Popular Teams: Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig, Schalke, Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg

Serie A

The historic Italian first division hosts a different style of soccer than the rest of the top European leagues due to its defensive focus, but nevertheless Serie A is a fantastic league to watch. Historic sides such as Milan, Inter, and Juventus all play in Serie A, and Cristiano Ronaldo currently plays in the league as well. Juventus have dominated in the 2010s, having won the last nine titles, but teams like Atalanta, Lazio, Napoli, and Roma have all challenged as well.

Popular Teams: AC Milan, Atalanta, Fiorentina, Internazionale, Juventus, Lazio, Napoli, Roma, Sassuolo, Torino

Ligue 1

Similar to the Bundesliga and Serie A, the French first division has been dominated by a singular team throughout the 2010s. Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG, has won the league title in seven of the last eight seasons, only losing out in 2016/17 to Monaco. Besides Monaco, Lille, Lyon, and Marseille are a few of the teams that have challenged for the title in the past few years. However, the two most expensive soccer players of all time, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, currently play for PSG in Ligue 1, so no wonder the team from the capital seems unstoppable.

Popular Teams: Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Monaco, Montpellier, Nantes, Paris Saint-Germain, Saint-Étienne, Stade Rennais

Other Leagues

While the five leagues above are known as the most elite in Europe and the world, there are many other high-quality and competitive leagues around the globe. The Dutch first division, called the Eredivisie, is incredibly competitive. Multiple teams, including Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord, and AZ Alkmaar, challenge for the title each season, and it is always a fight to the finish. Dutch teams have also been very successful internationally as well, with Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV all having won the Champions League in the past. The Portuguese top flight, called the Primeira Liga, also hosts many top clubs that have had European success, such as Porto, Benfica, Sporting, and Braga. Other top leagues include the Turkish Süper Lig, with historic clubs like Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, and Beşiktaş, the Brasileirão, with teams like Flamengo, Corinthians, Palmeiras, and Santos, and the Russian Premier League, the Ukrainian Premier League, the Belgian Pro League, the Argentine Primera División, and Liga MX.

Tournaments

While all club teams play in their specific league, they can also participate in cups, tournaments, and other competitions during the season. These competitions can be domestic or international. Here are the most popular and highly contested tournaments among the top teams in the world, most of which are in Europe.

UEFA Champions League

The UEFA Champions League is the top honor for a European soccer team. Contested by the best teams in Europe each season, the winner gets to hoist the highly coveted and revered Champions League trophy and is named champion of Europe. The Champions League initially takes the form of eight groups of four teams, in which the four clubs compete in a round-robin tournament and the top two teams at the end move on to the knockout stages. From the Round of 16 to the semifinals, the rounds are two-legged ties in which both sides have a chance to play at home. The final is one match at a predetermined venue that usually takes place in June. Real Madrid holds the record for the most Champions League titles with 13.

UEFA Europa League

The top teams in each European league that fail to qualify for the Champions League may qualify for the Europa League, which has a similar format to the Champions League, although there are more teams involved. This is due to the fact that there are initially 12 groups of four teams and that a few of the teams that don’t make it out of the Champions League group stage enter into the Europa League’s Round of 32. Therefore, the Europa League is a step below but still a stepping stone to the Champions League. The Europa League winner is not deemed the champion of Europe, but the competition is certainly prestigious, and the winner automatically qualifies for the next season’s Champions League. Sevilla holds the record for the most Europa League titles with five.

UEFA Europa Conference League

Although this may not be one of the biggest tournaments in world soccer, it is directly connected to both the Champions League and the Europa League, so it should be included. Slated to begin in the 2021-22 season, the Europa Conference League will be the third tier of European club soccer, below the Champions League and the Europa League. UEFA plans to take the lower half of the teams that would’ve qualified for the Europa League and qualify them for this competition instead. Therefore, the three European competitions will all have the same number of teams involved. Similarly to the Europa League’s relationship to the Champions League, a few of the teams that do not make it out of the Europa League group stages will enter into the Europa Conference League’s first knockout round. The winner of the Europa Conference League will also qualify for next season’s Europa League.

UEFA Super Cup

The UEFA Super Cup is one of the first European trophies offered in a given season. The winners of the Champions League and the Europa League from the previous season face off in a single match right before the season starts.

FIFA Club World Cup

The FIFA Club World Cup takes the winners of each confederation’s Champions League competition and puts them into a mini-tournament to determine the best team on the planet. Having only begun in 2000, the tournament has only been won by teams from Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL). The South American teams that have won have all been Brazilian, while UEFA has produced winners from Italy, England, Spain, and Germany.

Domestic Cups

Every league has cup competitions that coincide with league games. Some countries have multiple throughout the season and some countries offer different cup competitions for specific tiers. However, the best and most important cups are the ones that include every team in every league in a single country. These cup competitions are often won by the top teams in the first division, but every once in a while a smaller club from a lower division will make it far in the tournament. Here are the biggest and most important cup competitions in the top five leagues in the world.

England: FA Cup
Spain: Copa del Rey
Germany: DFB-Pokal
Italy: Coppa Italia
France: Coupe de France

  
Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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