Basketball has the NBA, baseball has the MLB and American football has the NFL. Those three major North American leagues have the highest concentration of the world’s best players and competition in their given sports. Football/soccer, the world’s most watched and played sport, does not have a unified league of the highest-level of professional of teams competing regularly to determine a yearly champion.

Since arriving in Latin America, I have often been confused about what level and league of football/soccer I was seeing on TV at sports bars and restaurants. With professional games being played between countless different teams throughout the entire year, I do not think I am alone in my confusion. This article is for those who want to know, but are too afraid to ask.

Simply stated, the “big leagues” of pro-Football/Soccer are spread into overlapping leagues and tournaments that last for various lengths of time. The highest level of play often simultaneously takes place on different continents. Some of the competitions called ‘leagues’ are just tournaments taking place over long periods of time. North Americans using the major team sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA) as reference points will get lost. The league and tournament structure of professional Football/Soccer is confusing for people who grew up in the USA.

This article aims to provide a base of knowledge for those who want to understand professional Football/Soccer, but become confused or overwhelmed by its sheer volume of games and teams. As a side effect, such an understanding may provide readers from the USA a better chance at comprehending what everyone is going so crazy about while travelling abroad.

As a general rule—with exceptions, the world’s top-ranking professional Football/Soccer ‘leagues’ identify the best professional club teams and the world’s superior tournament competitions identify the best national teams.

To comprehend the leagues and tournaments, it should first be understood that the Football/Soccer world is divided into FIFA’s six intercontinental governing confederations, as follows: Europe and parts of Northern Asia--the Union of European Football (UEFA); North, Central America and the Caribbean--the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); the majority of South American countries--the Confederacion Sudamericana de Football (CONMEBOL); Africa and Australia--the Confederation of African Football (CAF); the Southern half of Asia--the Asian Football Confederation (AFC); and Oceania, New Zealand and countries of the Southern Pacific Ocean, make up the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) [1].

Within countries of FIFA Confederations are individual national club leagues. Teams within each individual country’s national club leagues compete to qualify to play in their confederation’s highest league, which is called the “Champions” league in most Confederations. The individual national club leagues are given a number of spots in the champions leagues based on the success of that league’s record in previous champions league seasons. The UEFA, for example, gives each national league champion within its confederation a spot in the champions league and gives stronger leagues more spots for their runners-up [2].

Similar to major league baseball in the USA, all professional Football/Soccer players strive to compete in the Champions Leagues. Dissimilar from baseball, however, the teams and not the players can be promoted to and demoted from the champions leagues each year.

UEFA’s Champions League is the most prestigious, well-paid Champions League. It is here that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s teams regularly qualify to play. UEFA’s Champions League is recreated each season by the top teams from some renowned national European leagues including the English Premier League; Spain’s “La Liga;” Germany’s “Bundesliga” and others.

The UEFA’s Champions League is the closest football/soccer comes to having a major league. The team winning the UEFA’s Champions League, however does not always win the FIFA Club World Cup (explained later), which is a tournament played between the winning teams of each confederation’s Champions league. The UEFA’s Champions League representative has won 8 of the 12 FIFA Club World Cup tournaments.

Other confederations have similar structures: CONCACAF includes the USA’s MLS; Mexico’s Liga MX; Costa Rica’s Primera Division and others. Similar to UAF’s format, 2 teams from 12 of the COCACAF member Football/Soccer leagues qualify for the Scotiabank Champions League; CONMEBOL (South America) is the oldest Football/Soccer confederation and includes only 10 member associations, such as, the Argentine Football League system, the Copa do Brasil, and the Uruguayan Primera Division; who compete each year to play in the Copa America; CAF (Confederation of African Football—the biggest confederation) includes 56 member associations who compete to play in the CAF Champions League, which was known as the African Cup of Champions Clubs; the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) has 47 member countries including China, Japan and India who compete to play in the AFC Champions League; and the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) includes 11 full member associations who compete to play in the Oceania Champions League.

The winners of each Confederation’s elite or ‘Champions League’ championships meet to determine the world’s best club team in the FIFA Club World Cup. Since its inception in 2000, 8 out of the 13 FIFA Club World Cup champions have come from the UEFA Champions League with the remainder coming from South America’s CONMEBOL [3].

Although UEFA’s Champions League is the most highly regarded one and has the brand recognition of being “THE Champions League,” the FIFA Club World Championship results show that the best Football/Soccer in the world is played on more than one continent.

Aside from the highest level football/soccer leagues are tournaments, the FIFA World Cup reigns as the most significant football/soccer tournament in the world. It occurs every 4 years and includes a field of 32 national teams derived from the 209 countries of FIFA’s continental confederations [4].

National teams are composed of players who are citizens with a “clear connection” to the country their teams represent. Before each confederation’s World Cup qualifying tournament, FIFA determines the number of qualifying spots available from each zone. In 2014, the Confederations had the following numbers of World Cup qualifying spots: Africa (12); Asia (4.5); Oceania (0.5); Europe (13); North Central and Caribbean (3.5); South America (4.5).

The FIFA World Cup is the world’s most watched world sporting event during every year it is played [5]. Each country fills its national team with its best citizen players. Unlike some of the USA’s Olympic basketball teams, all of each country’s elite professional players represent their home countries in the World Cup. The level of play in the World Cup is as high, in parts, as it is in the best Champions League games, but it is generally not as concentrated. In World Cup qualifying, the world greatest players are subject to the level of play of their fellow countrymen teammates. Some countries, which have rosters that include some of the world’s best players, will not qualify for the World Cup. Therefore, some of the world’s top players do not play in the World Cup.

Preceding the FIFA World Cup is the FIFA Confederations Cup. Historically, the World Cup is the most prestigious Football/Soccer tournament in in the world, but the newly created FIFA Confederations Cup serves as a miniature, quadrennial prelude to it. The Confederations Cup field is composed of 8 teams, including all of the winners of the previous year’s Confederation Championships, the previous FIFA World Cup winner and the tournament’s host nation [6].

Brazil, having won the previous four Confederations Cups, has the option along with other South American and European national teams, to decline its invitation to play in it. Although less publicized and attended than the FIFA World Cup, the Confederations Cup gathers the 6 champion teams from each Confederation. Therefore, it often shows a shorter glimpse of the world’s best clubs within the same competition.

In conclusion, football/soccer’s scattered high-level of play makes it difficult to identify a single league or tournament in which all of the world’s best teams or players compete against each other. The best football/soccer teams in the world play in the Champions Leagues of FIFA’s confederations. Further, only a majority of the best players kickoff in the FIFA World Cup. In light of the above, the world’s best football/soccer is not played on the same surface or within the same competition as often as with other sports including the big leagues of baseball, football or basketball.

The cultural education one gains while travelling to most places outside of the USA includes learning more about Football/Soccer. In Latin America, the fan loyalty and devotion to it equals that of the combined fan loyalty that the USA has for football, baseball and basketball. Without a basic understanding of the worldwide structure of professional Football/Soccer, one could miss out on fully grasping a large portion of the world’s cultures.

Soccer’s slow growth into its current position suggests that it is a major attraction in the present and future of sports. Soon, the information put forth in this article will be common knowledge in the USA and the rest of the developed world.

[4] https://en.wikipedia/org/wiki/FIFA_World_Cup_qualification
[6] https://en.wikipedia/org/wiki/FIFA_Confederations_Cup