If you are fairly new to watching English soccer, you could certainly be forgiven for wondering why on Earth people would care about finishing in the top four in the Premier League.
After all, nowhere in America is finishing fourth considered any sort of success. That it is a lofty aspiration for many an English soccer club, and a critical bare minimum for several of them, takes some figuring out.
So what’s the deal with the top four?
It’s all about one thing: Europe.
Each league in English soccer — all of which are connected by a system of promotion and relegation — has only one table, which Yanks would call the standings. At the bottom of the league lies relegation, for the worst three clubs, to the lower league for the whole next season. In the leagues below the Premier League, finishing in the top three means being promoted up a league for the whole next season. And, obviously, whoever finishes first is the champion in all leagues. (They aren’t that different!)
In the Premier League, at the top of the pyramid system of leagues, there is nowhere to be promoted to — within England. Where the top four go is into a competition, during the following season, called the UEFA Champions League.
Another one to know:
First of all, UEFA stands for Union of European Football Associations. And its Champions League is not truly a league; it’s a tournament. It is a season-long competition between the best teams from all European countries. It is, by a long shot, the most lucrative and glamorous club championship in the world. Why? Because all the money, and therefore all the big clubs and best players, are in Europe.
Actually, tiny countries like Albania and Slovakia only send their champions, and they have to play in preliminary rounds. But big countries like England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany get to send three or four teams. Getting in means lucrative home and away games all over the continent, a minimum of six for the big-country clubs, plus a share of television money. It also means you have the glamour to sign big players, who want to play in the biggest competitions.
In other words, what does finishing top four in the Premier League mean? Lots and lots of money.
As I write this, in April 2017, the Champions League is down to the semifinals, with Atletico Madrid playing Real Madrid (yes, two from the same city!) and Monaco from France playing Juventus from Italy. The final is June 3 in Cardiff, Wales.
A quick side note: Whoever finishes fifth, and possibly sixth (it’s complicated) in the Premier League also gets into “the European places,” but that is for a smaller tournament called the EUFA Europa League. It is simply the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAA.
Another quick side note: Every one of the seven regions (like UEFA) all over the world have some version of this competition. In the North-and-Central-America region, it’s the CONCACAF (don’t ask) Champions League. In South America, it’s the Copa Libertadores. Africa also has a Champions League. And all the winners play each other in a thing called the Club World Cup, which no one cares about unless they win it.
Who was the last English team to win the Champions League? Chelsea, in 2012. They won the Europa League the following year. Otherwise, of late, English teams have been pretty horrible in European competitions. As I write this, in April 2017, the only one still standing is Manchester United. They are in the semifinals of the Europa League.
So as this season winds down over the next few weeks, you may notice there are in fact three leagues going on, just within the Premier League:
- Who is going to win? (Probably Chelsea, maybe Tottenham)
- Who is going to get relegated? (Definitely Sunderland and Middlesbrough, plus either Swansea City or Hull)
- Who is going to finish in the top four? (Chelsea, Tottenham, probably Manchester City, and either Man U or Liverpool or Arsenal.
In other words, some very big clubs in English soccer — two of those last three — are going to have themselves a bitterly disappointing season. One might not even make the Europa League!
And now you know why some teams with no shot at winning the title will, over these next few weeks, play some incredibly important games.