Students feel as if the 36-week school year is an eternity, but the league that determines the best soccer club in the world lasts even longer than a school year. Throughout the school year, the NFL and the MLB complete their own season with similar playoffs systems. The UEFA Champions League which displays the best soccer clubs in Europe, is unlike these systems.
The Ten Month Season
One unique aspect of the league is the 10 month season. The tournament is lengthier than any other US sports playoff because of the already crammed schedules of players. In addition to Champions League, the top players in Europe play for their respective clubs league as well as represent their home countries in international play. Players compete in their league games on the weekdays and then Champions League games on weekends. UEFA has to schedule games between all the players’ activities and therefore, a tournament which only lasts a few weeks is not practical.
The journey to the top of Champions League starts long before the beginning of the tournament. To earn the prestigious honor of even competing, teams have to qualify for Champions League. Teams have to place well enough in their country’s league to earn their spot. Only the top teams in each European league qualify. The English Premier League, which is widely recognized as the top league in Europe, can only send four teams into the Champions League, while leagues with fewer dominant teams such as the Eredivisie of the Netherlands can send only one team to the Champions League.
Once a team qualifies for the Champions League, they compete in a group stage and then if they compete well enough they progress to the knockout stage. The top 2 teams from each of the 8 groups continue to the knockout stage. The winner of each matchup in the knockout stages is determined by aggregate, which is the combined score of two games (one away, one home) played between teams. The team that advances scores the most combined goals in both games or if the aggregate is tied, the team that scores the most goals in their away game. The tiebreaker system has been utilized multiple times throughout Champions League history and most recently determined the winner of the UEFA Champions League semi final matchup this April in a game between two English giants: Tottenham and Manchester City. The teams were evenly tied on aggregate after scoring 4 goals a piece following the final whistle of the second game, but the Tottenham side recorded 3 away goals which surpassed City’s zero away goals. The system that determined the winner of this matchup is rare and is seen in few sports worldwide. Many fans believe the aggregate system makes each contest equal because the debate of home field advantage is eliminated. In other sports playoffs such as the NFL playoffs, teams play one game at one field. The site of this game is determined months prior to the actually game and therefore a team can have a clear advantage geographically if their home city is in close proximity to the playoff field.
An additional feature of the tournament that is rarely seen in the sports world is random shuffling. The groups of Champions League along with the knockout stage matchups are selected randomly. Randomization takes the place of seeding seen in tournaments such as the NCAA basketball tournament where teams are seeded according to their performance in the regular season. In contrast, all clubs in the Champions League are considered equal. Randomization breeds unpredictability. A supporter of a club has no idea who they will play in the next game, if their team wins. Some would argue this creates consistency in the tournament while others that enjoy tournaments comparable to the NCAA basketball tournament would argue that the teams that place first in their group deserves a weaker opponent to matchup against next. In the NCAA basketball tournament, teams which are seeder highly are considered to have the easiest road to the finals unlike Champions League where your route to the finals is not predetermined.
The UEFA Champions League is not comparable to any playoff or tournament the US offers. The best soccer team in the world takes 10 months to determine? The winners of matches are decided by aggregate? All the teams are considered equal? These idea may be perplexing to many Americans, but they are the very ideas which attract hundreds of millions of viewers to the league that names the most prestigious club in the world, the UEFA Champions League winners.