UEFA Champions League 101

Staff writer Brady Olson explains the structure of the league to the common man who doesn’t follow the sport

Brady Olson
Staff Writer

As the soccer season starts up around Europe, a time-honored tournament has hit the group stage and is about to make or break the dreams of 32 soccer teams from across Europe. 

On October 3rd & 4th, 16 matches were played in the UEFA Champions League group stage, game two of six for all 32 teams involved. But for the casual soccer fan, or non-soccer fan, you may be unfamiliar with these terms.

What is the Champions League?

The Champions League is a soccer competition organized by UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe. 

All 55 countries that are part of UEFA (except Liechtenstein) receive a minimum of one representative. The better your league is, the more spots you get. 

For example, Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A each get four teams in the UCL, while 39 of 54 countries involved only send one team. 

Additionally, teams from the lower leagues have to play in qualifying rounds. The lower your league’s standing is, the earlier you have to compete. 

San Marino’s champion would have to play immediately in the preliminary round, while Denmark’s champion would go straight to the third qualifying round. But, for the sake of time, we’ll skip the qualifiers and go straight to the “actual” Champions League.

What is the group stage?

The group stage is much like the FIFA World Cup’s group stage, but with a few tweaks. 

Like the World Cup, the UCL has eight groupings with each grouping fielding four teams. 

Unlike the World Cup, where everyone plays each other once, the UCL has everyone play each other twice, allowing for a home and away leg against each opponent. 

The top two teams from each group advance to the Round of 16. 

The third team in each group is transferred to the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League, the secondary league for teams in Europe that has a similar format to the Champions League. Most teams that lose in the qualifiers get transferred to the Europa League. The 4th place team in each group is eliminated.

The group stage is where money in the Champions League starts getting serious. The prize money for making the group stage is roughly $17.53 million. 

During the group stage, teams receive $3.15 million for each win and $1.05 million for each draw. Imagine the NFL having a system where a game-winning field goal could cost your team $2 million. 

If you lost in the playoff to make the group stage, you get transferred to the Europa League group stage. They also dole out prize money, but their base fee for making the group stage is much less than that of the Champions League.

What happens after group stage?

After the group stage, we begin the knockout rounds. It is essentially the same format as the World Cup knockout rounds, or the NCAA Tournament. 

Winning the tournament would result in $58.62 million in prize money, plus whatever was won in group stage and prior rounds. Whoever wins the Champions League faces the Europa League champion in the UEFA Super Cup. 

The most successful Champions League club is Real Madrid, who have won the last three seasons and have 13 titles all-time.

Now that we know what Champions League is, who are the favorites?

The obvious favorites right now are Manchester City. City is coming off a stellar season where they won the Premier League and made it to the UCL quarterfinals before being bounced by Liverpool. They are favorites again to win the Premier League this year, and Vegas is putting City’s Champions League odds at 9/2. 

However, City has had a rough start in group stage, losing their first game to Lyon and needing a late goal to beat Hoffenheim on the road. 

Not far behind Man City are the two Spanish powers Barcelona and Real Madrid. Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, is currently 2nd in Spain’s La Liga, and has easily dispatched both PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham Hotspur early on. 

Real Madrid is currently 2nd in their group, reeling off a loss to CSKA Moscow. However, they easily took down AS Roma 3-0 and look to be in a strong position to make the Round of 16.

Real Madrid would probably have been the favorites to four-peat had it not been for them selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Italian-based Juventus. And now that Ronaldo is at Juventus, they have become heavy favorites in their group. They already have a five point edge over 3rd place Valencia, and they will look to cement themselves as contenders when they face an up-and-down Manchester United squad, who drew with Valencia at home. 

One of the fan favorites on campus, Manchester United has had a rough start to the year. They are currently 8th in the Premier League, and have had recent losses to West Ham and Derby County. United, managed by Jose Mourinho, will have to make something happen against Juventus if they want to avoid a winner-take-all scenario against Valencia.

When will the teams play next?

Unlike the World Cup, which compacts its game into a very short time window, the Champions League plays throughout the season, simultaneous with the domestic leagues that the teams play in. All teams will play in their 3rd group stage games on October 23rd & 24th. High impact games to watch will be Borussia Dortmund vs. Atletico Madrid, Manchester United vs. Juventus, and Barcelona vs. Inter Milan.

Feature photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

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