European Football vs. American Sports: Some Interesting Differences

By | January 19, 2015

Though the popularity of sports like baseball, basketball, and American football in the US mirrors that of soccer in European countries, some very stark differences have been recognized between the two sporting cultures that each region fosters. Below are a few observations surrounding these inequalities.

1. Promotion and Relegation

Most European football leagues, most notably the English Premier League and La Liga (first division league in Spain), employ a promotion and relegation system to decide who competes in a particular league from year to year. In the Premier League, for example, the three teams that compile the least amount of points at the end of the season are relegated to the Football League Championship, a second tier league. The three most successful teams in that league are simultaneously promoted to the Premier League and compete in the relegated teams’ places the following season.

Could one imagine if this type of structure were used in American sports? Think about the NBA and NFL in particular where “tanking” has become a part of the fabric of these leagues over the past couple years. Some NFL teams in 2011 who started their seasons on the losing side of most games seemingly decided that they should “suck for Luck” in an effort to get the first overall selection in the upcoming year’s draft. Andrew Luck, a QB coming out of Stanford that year, was a highly regarded prospect, and teams believed that “earning” a poor record would be worth the opportunity to draft him (the Indianapolis Colts “won” the Luck sweepstakes, and their gamble has certainly paid off).

What if teams were in danger of losing their spot in the NFL if their record was too bad? If the bottom feeders of each division were to be relegated to a lesser league, would tanking ever be feasible? Imagine how intriguing a late season NFL game could be if two of the worst teams in a division were facing off under this structure. These games, unlike ones where teams are vying for a playoff birth, are centered around a team’s life in the NFL. A loss for either team could figuratively kill them, at least for a season.

2. Salary Caps/Exchanging Players

Perhaps the most notable difference between European soccer leagues and the major sports in the United States, save Major League Baseball, is the existence of salary caps in America. These limit the amount of money any one team can spend on player personnel without a hefty monetary penalty. Players are therefore restricted from getting the opportunity to earn their true value in a completely free market.

No salary caps have been imposed in the major European soccer leagues. In Europe, players are transferred freely between clubs without restriction. Although the transfer process is similar to trading players here in America, there are some key differences:

  1. The contract of the player that is being transferred is terminated with his former club so that he may negotiate a new one with his new club.
  2. transfer fee, rather than another player (like in America), is paid to the club that is transferring the player.
  3. Players can be transferred between leagues. For instance, Gareth Bale, a Welsh winger who currently competes with Real Madrid in La Liga (Spain), was transferred from Tottenham Hotspur (English Premier League) in 2013 for a record €100 million (The Telegraph).
  4. Players can be loaned to opposing clubs in a similar fashion to transferring. Players remain under contract with the team who is loaning them, but the receivers pay a fee to the loaners as compensation. Loans can last for a few games up to multiple seasons.

3. Crowning Champions

All American major sports champions are crowned through some type of playoff system. One recent notable exception was the NCAA Division 1-A football championship, which saw a combination of human and computer rankings decide what two teams would compete in the national championship up until this past year. This system, known as the BCS, has been replaced with the 4-team College Football Playoff. In the professional ranks, at least eight teams, and often times more, are pitted against each other in order to determine each league’s champion for that particular season.

The concept of a playoff tournament are nonexistent in European club soccer. Champions are crowned solely for their performance in the regular season. In the English Premier League or La Liga, for instance, the champion is the team who has the most points (3 for win, 1 for draw, 0 for loss) after the last game of the season. Although this eliminates the possibility of a “Cinderella story,” a popular concept in America that describes a team that had a seemingly miraculous and unprecedented rise to glory, a “true” champion is crowned every year. The champion crowned in a European soccer league has proven itself to be worthy of a title throughout the entire 9-10 month season (see 1998-1999 Manchester United FC or 2008-2009 FC Barcelona). In American leagues, a team that gets “hot” at the right time (see 2011-2012 Los Angeles Kings or 1984-1985 Villanova Men’s Basketball) can come away as league champions even though they might not have been the best team for a majority of the season.

4. Power of Officials

Although officials in the major American sports have considerable control over the games they are overseeing, there is a system of checks and balances to protect against power-hungry officials and to ensure that the right call is made more often than the wrong one. The home plate umpire at a baseball game can defer to either the first or third base umpire if he is unsure whether the batter swung at a pitch, and instant replay is essential to NFL and NBA games to assist the officials in determining, for instance, whether a wide receiver’s feet were in bounds when he made a catch or if the ball left the shooting guard’s hand before the shot clock expired.

In soccer, the referee is essentially unchecked and has almost no access to instant replay. Assistant referees may make recommendations to the head one when a possible breach in the rules has occurred out of his or her view, but the head referee always has the final say on calls. Up until the 2014 World Cup, referees had no access to technology to assist in their decision making. “Goal-line technology,” which can help to determine whether a shot was a goal or not, was introduced in Brazil but is only used in a limited number of situations.

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