Football Competitions

Charles William Alcock’s proposal in 1871 saw the establishment of the FA Challenge Cup, the first competition in football history. Taking place in 1872, the Wanderers FC (now-deceased team, formerly of Battersea) were the first to take the trophy home, beating the Royal Engineers 1-0 in the final. Today, every domestic football association has one, or even two, cup competitions which run simultaneously with a league. To top it off, there are continental and even world tournaments in existence at both club and international level. Here are a list of the main leagues and cup competitions in British club football, along with a few international competitions to get you up to scratch:

The Premiership/The FA Premier League

The Premiership, as it is more commonly known, was formed in 1992 and composed of teams in the old Division One of the Football League. The decline in football’s popularity during the 1980s was halted with the English national side’s positive showing in the 1990 World Cup, and the Premiership sought both to capitalise on this unexpected boom and the top clubs’ threats to form a breakaway division from the Football League due to squabbling over television rights.

Originally containing 22 clubs, the number was trimmed down to 20 in 1995 in accordance with FIFA regulations. The infrastructure of the league is comparable to a corporation, with each member club having a vote on major issues and electing a Chairman, Chief Executive and Board of Directors to deal with the day-to-day affairs.

Premiership Trophy

Despite the long list of clubs each year, the trophy has only been won by 4 sides; Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and Manchester United. Each year, the winners and 2nd placed team immediately qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, while 3rd and 4th place means admission to the qualifying round of the Champions League. 5th place guarantees entry in the UEFA Cup and it is even possible for 6th and 7th placed sides to follow, if the finalists of both the FA and League Cups have already qualified for European competition in the league.

However, the benefits of merely being in the Premiership are palpable. The Premiership is the most popular league in the world, with an audience of over a billion each week and matches beamed to an incredible 195 countries. In China alone, as many as 360 million viewers tune in, more than any other foreign sport. Consequently, television rights bring in a hefty sum, with each club receiving £45 million per annum on the 2007-2010 deal.

The trickle-down effect has been dramatic for players and fans. Whereas the average salary of a top-flight footballer in 1992 was approximately £75,000 per annum, statistics released in 2004 showed it had ballooned to an astonishing £676,000 each year. The English transfer record has also been smashed time after time since the Premiership’s inception. The £3.75 million record signing of Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest to Manchester United in June 1993 pales in significance to the £30 million signing of Andriy Shevchenko by Chelsea from AC Milan in June 2006.

Standing alongside the Premiership is the FA Women’s Premier League National Division, a semi-professional league which currently represents the top flight of English women’s football.

The Football League

Championship Trophy

The Football League is the oldest league in world football and represented the top clubs in English football until the establishment of the Premiership. Today, the League acts as a feeder to the Premier League and encompasses three divisions (the Championship, League One and League Two) and 72 clubs. However, the Championship is still remarkably popular and, according to Deloitte auditors, is the richest non-top-flight division in world football.

The Championship

1st Place Promoted
2nd Place Promoted
3rd Place Play-offs (Two Legged Semi-final versus 6th placed side + Final)
4th Place Play-offs (Two Legged Semi-final versus 5th placed side + Final)
5th Place Play-offs (Two Legged Semi-final versus 4th placed side + Final)
6th Place Play-offs (Two Legged Semi-final versus 3rd placed side + Final)
Bottom Three Relegated

The Football Conference

Represents the top-flight structure of non-league football in England and is made up of three leagues; Conference National, Conference North and Conference South. The Conference National is, in turn, the top division in the Conference, made up of 24 teams. The winners of the Conference National are promoted to the Football League, assuming the club meets the regulations on stadium facilities. Both the Conference North and Conference South feed teams to the National league each season.

Conference National
1st Place Promoted
Four Worst Placed Teams Relegated
Conference North
1st Place Promoted
2nd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 5th placed side + Final)
3rd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 4th placed side + Final)
4th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 3rd placed side + Final)
5th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd placed side + Final)
Three Worst Placed Teams Relegated to Step leagues
Conference South
1st Place Promoted
2nd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 5th placed side + Final)
3rd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 4th placed side + Final)
4th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 3rd placed side + Final)
5th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd placed side + Final)
Three Worst Placed Teams Relegated to Step leagues

Scottish Premiership & Football League

The Premier League is made up of 12 teams and was set up in 1998 from the ashes of the old Scottish Division One. It was formulated on the English model and today represents the top clubs in Scottish football. The winners and the second placed side qualify for the Champions League group stages and the qualifying rounds respectively, while the third placed team are entered into the UEFA Cup.

The Scottish Football League, in turn, encompasses three divisions and acts as a feeder for the Premier League.

Scottish Division One
1st Place Promoted
Worst Placed Team Relegated
2nd Worst Placed Team Play-offs (Also includes the 2nd to 4th placed clubs in Division Two)
Scottish Division Two
1st Place Promoted
2nd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 3rd place + Final)
3rd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd place + Final)
4th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd worst placed team in Division One + Final)
Worst Placed Team Relegated
2nd Worst Placed Team Play-offs (Also includes the 2nd to 4th placed clubs in Division Three)
Scottish Division Three
1st Place Promoted
2nd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 3rd place + Final)
3rd Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd place + Final)
4th Place Play-offs (Semi-final versus 2nd worst placed team in Division Two + Final)

N.B. There is no relegation in Division Three, but finishing last three times in a row means expulsion to the amateur leagues.

Irish Premier League

The Premier League is Northern Ireland’s top tier of football, incorporating 16 teams. It is not to be confused with the Football League of Ireland, which is located in the Republic of Ireland. However, the top four each year do go into the All-Ireland Setanta Sports Cup, where they meet teams from the Republic of Ireland.

League of Wales

Established in 1992 and containing 17 teams, the League winners are submitted to the qualifying stages of the Champions League, while the 2nd placed side reach the UEFA Cup. Two sides are relegated each year, replaced by one promoted side each from the Welsh Football League and Cymru Alliance.

FA Cup

FA Cup

The oldest competition in world football, the FA Cup is also a reflection of football’s popularity across England, with an exceptional 687 teams accepted into the 2006/2007 competition. The Cup starts in August with the Extra Preliminary Round, followed by the 2nd qualifying round when the Conference North and South are entered. The Conference National are entered in the 4th qualifying round, with League One and League Two clubs taking part from the First Round stage. However, the key moment is the Third Round proper, when the Championship and Premiership teams are involved.

The winners of the FA Cup are entered into the UEFA Cup although, if the winners have already gained qualification into a European competition in the league, the other finalist will receive that honour. This matter has always been a major issue in the competition due to the top flight’s dominance. Indeed, the last non-league side to win the FA Cup was Tottenham Hotspur (now a Premiership side) in 1901, and the last side outside the top flight to win was West Ham United in 1980. The two most successful English sides in the league, Manchester United and Arsenal, are also the most successful in the FA Cup, with 11 and 10 wins respectively.

Football League Cup

League Cup

Referred to by whatever sponsor it happens to have, the League Cup is the second knock-out competition in England (unlike most European countries like Spain and Italy, who settle for one). Only 92 teams are permitted to enter, representing the entirety of the Football League and the Premiership.

It was founded in 1961 but the competition only really grew in popularity when the winners were awarded a UEFA Cup spot. Like the FA Cup, if the winners have qualified by other means, the other finalist benefits. On this matter, if both finalists have qualified, 6th place in the league qualifies for Europe (can extend to 7th place if the same situation reigns in the FA Cup).

The competition is exceptional in its format because the knockout format is briefly replaced at the semi-final stage by a two-legged affair, with away goals a factor. However, the League Cup is far less popular than the FA Cup and has increasingly been used by the top teams as a way to blood their youngsters and reserve players. Liverpool have been the most successful club in the competition, with seven victories.

UEFA Champions League/The European Cup

Champions League Trophy

Could easily be considered the greatest prize in club football worldwide, the Champions League is connected to the old European Cup. Whereas the old Cup was established in 1955, the Champions League renaming took place in 1992 as a response to the total restructuring of the format.

The old knockout style solely including the winners of each domestic league was replaced by a dramatically different system involving 32 teams. This was preceded by three qualifying rounds with two-legs each. Once into the full competition, a group stage takes place (8 groups with 4 teams in each). Each team plays home and away, the top two of each qualifying for the knockout stages, which are at first drawn from two groups (representing those who finished 1st and 2nd respectively) but then done randomly for the rest of the competition. Ties at this point are two-legged, with the away goals rule applied along with extra-time and penalties if necessary. The final is naturally a single-leg affair.

The exclusivity of the old European Cup was thrown out the window for the Champions League, as now the admitted sides represent the top teams in a country. The number of teams permitted depends on the strength of the league. For example, La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy and the Premiership in England are all given four spots in the Champions League. Ligue 1 in France, the Bundesliga in Germany and the Portuguese Liga in Portugal each receive 3 spots. All other representatives are given two places or a single spot.

The Champions League’s popularity with clubs stems from its prestige and the monumental financial benefits. Sponsorship and television money means the rewards are phenomenal. In the 2005/2006 season, teams were given a cumulative total of 430 million Euros, the figure for each club being decided based on their performance in the competition (e.g. Liverpool FC received 30 million Euros for winning in 2004/2005).

The most successful leagues are, unsurprisingly, the strongest leagues in Europe, Spanish teams having been victorious 11 times, followed by their English and Italian counterparts with 10 trophies each. The single most dominant side is Real Madrid with 9 Cups, way ahead of AC Milan in second, who have won 6 times.

UEFA Cup

UEFA Cup

The UEFA Cup is the bridesmaid to the bride that is the Champions League in European club football. First played in 1971, the tournament has seen many changes, not least being merged with the Cup Winners Cup in 1999. It is now seen as a very lowly second to the Champions League mainly due to the growth of that tournament in numbers as well as in wealth.

Domestic Cup winners gain entry to the UEFA Cup along with the highest placed league team who failed to qualify for the Champions League. Teams enter the competition depending on the strength of their UEFA coefficients. Teams from countries ranked lower than 18th enter in the first qualifying round and teams from nations ranked between 9th and 18th enter in the second qualifying phase. There are also spots in this round for the lucky winners of the Fair Play Draw as well as entrants from the Intertoto Cup.

In the first round proper the teams that have qualified from highly ranked coefficient nations join the qualifiers meaning 80 teams will play in the first round. These games are played over two legs and the winners advance to a group phase of eight groups consisting of five teams each. The top three in each group progress after a round-robin stage where they are joined by the eight 3rd placed teams in the Champions League and a straight two-legged knock-out format ensues until the final, which is played at a neutral arena in a one-off game.

Juventus are the most successful UEFA Cup entrant having won the tournament on three occasions and have been beaten finalists the same amount of times again. Sevilla are the current holders and have won it in back-to-back years.

FIFA World Cup

FIFA World Cup

If there’s one thing which brings out all the casual fans, it’s the World Cup. Whereas all the aforementioned competitions take place annually, the World Cup only happens once every four years and has done since 1930 (with a break between 1942 and 1946 due to World War II). Nevertheless, seven countries have won the trophy, Brazil being the most successful with 5 victories (England’s only victory came in 1966).

This figure of just seven victors is all the more remarkable when you consider that 198 nations tried to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. This figure is trimmed down to 32 for the Finals themselves. The qualification process is organised in the six FIFA continental zones (see below for more details). Qualification takes some two years and is achieved via a single group stage (the terms of which depend on the particular zone). The number of places for each zone is decided by FIFA, although the host nation never have to qualify.

The Finals themselves are composed of a group stage (8 groups with 4 teams in each, the top two qualifying after every team plays each other once) and a straight-up knockout stage, concluding with a final.

UEFA European Football Championship

UEFA European Football Championship Trophy

Simply known as ‘the European Championships’, this competition is unsurprisingly solely for teams within the European FIFA continental zone. Approximately 50 nations enter the qualification stage, with just 16 sides making it to the Finals. In order to avoid clashing with the World Cup, the European Championships alternate with the World Cup (for example, the 2006 World Cup followed by the 2008 European Championships).

Qualification also takes roughly two years. 10 groups with 5 teams in each are drawn, 1st place qualifying and 10 runners-up forced to play-off with one another for 5 extra spots. The host does not have to qualify.

The first competition took place in 1958 and the most successful sides are Germany with 3 wins.