How does the Champions League work?


Dear Sports Fan,

You mentioned in today’s Cue Cards that the European soccer tournament, the Champions league started yesterday. How does the Champions League work? Is it a playoffs or more like the World Cup?


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Dear Paul,

The Champions League is the most exciting and prestigious tournament of professional or club teams in Europe and therefore, unless you’re an extremely passionate MLS or South American soccer fan, the world. The Champions League format is more like the World Cup than like a playoffs format that we’re used to in the United States. There is a qualifying stage, a group stage, and then a knockout stage. There are some differences between the Champions League and the World Cup though.

The underlying issue which makes the tournament so complicated, is that the organizers are caught between two goals.

  • To include all of the domestic league champions in the Champions League
  • To find the overall best team in the continent.

The first is a hard-and-fast rule: every domestic champion must take part in some way in the Champions League. To achieve the second goal, the tournament has two strategies. First, it allows teams that came in second, third, or even fourth place in stronger leagues to participate in the tournament. The stronger the league, the more Champions League invitations it gets. Second, it stacks the deck so that champions of weaker leagues have to play more games to qualify for the Group Stage of 32 teams than teams from the strongest leagues. The rankings it uses to do this are called the UEFA coefficient in what I can only assume is an attempt to make your brains spill out of your eyes.

Home and Away Games

Throughout the entire Champions League, with only one exception, regardless of whether the tournament is in the qualifying stage, the group stage, or the knock-out stage, teams always play each other twice: once at each team’s home stadium. Three points are rewarded for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. If the tournament calls for deciding just between the two teams playing (in the qualification and knock-out stages) and the two teams have the same number of points after the two games, a system of tie-breakers comes into play. The tie breaking is thankfully not that complicated. Whichever team has scored the most goals in the two games wins. If both teams have scored the same number of goals in the two games against one another, then the team that scored more goals in the game when they played away from their home stadium, qualifies. If that’s not going to work, then the second game of the home and away is extended into overtime. If no goals are scored in overtime, there’s a penalty kick shootout.

The Champions League Qualification Stage

Qualification has four stages: the first qualifying round, the second qualifying round, the third qualifying round, and the play-off round. In each of the four qualifying rounds, the winners from the previous round compete and new teams are added into the mix. For example, the surviving three teams from the six that played in the first qualifying round are joined by 31 teams who have not yet played a game. The play-off round is just like the other qualifying rounds, it’s just called something special because the winners of that round gain admission to the Group Stage of 32 teams. Of the fifty-five teams that take part in the qualifying stage, only ten will make the Group Stage.

The Group Stage

The group stage is when, for casual observers, the tournament really starts. It’s plays out very similarly to the way the World Cup group stage works. The teams are divided into eight groups of four that play each other to determine which sixteen teams (two from each group) make it into the next round. The only real difference is that the home and away game format is used here, so each team plays six games in this stage instead of only three.

The Knockout Round

Again, very similar to the World Cup, the knockout round winnows the field from sixteen teams to eight to four and finally to two. These matches are played like all the preceding matches in the tournament as part of a home and away. The only exception to this is the Champions League final that is played as a single elimination game in a neutral location. Or at least, a pre-ordained location. This year’s final will be held in Berlin on June 6, 2015.

What does it all mean?

It means there’s a lot of great soccer ahead of us! The Group Stage is just beginning, and will continue from September to December. After a civilized winter break, the Knockout round begins in February and dramatically lollygags until the final in June. The deliberative pace of the Champions League reflects the fact that its participating teams are simultaneously involved in their own domestic leagues and tournaments. It’s also reflected in the home and away format and reflective of the slower pace of soccer as a game. This contemplative aspect of soccer is one of the many reasons I love the sport.

Hope you enjoy soccer too, thanks for writing,
Ezra Fischer

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