Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Champions League brings world together

Each year, the UEFA Champions League brings 32 of the world's best club soccer teams together to compete against one another. With the title of "the world's best" on the line, drama and passion run high at each and every match.

To qualify for the league (which is actually set up more like a tournament) each team must win or place near the top of the standings in their own country (each country has its own club soccer league). The larger, more prominent countries (such as England, where the top 4 teams of the English Premier League earn spots in the Champions League) typically are allowed to send multiple teams into the tournament, whereas smaller countries usually only send their league victor.

The brunt of the Champions League schedule is made up of what is called the "Group Stage." In this stage, the 32-team field is broken down into eight groups of four. Each group is labeled with a letter - Group A, Group B, and so on. Each team then plays the other members of their group twice, resulting in a 6 game schedule. The games are spread out during a four month period, September to December.

Currently, each team in the Champions League has played four games. To see the standings as of November 6th, click here.

At the end of the group stage, the top two teams from each group move into the "Knockout Stage." This stage consists of head-to-head matchups, much similar to the "Sweet Sixteen" of the NCAA basketball tournament. The matchups are spread out over the course of four months, from February to May with the championship match being played in late May.

^Cristiano Ronaldo and his Manchester United teammates
conquered the Champions League last season.

What intrigues me about the Champions League is the world involvement. The 32 teams come from countries such as France, England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Germany, Portugal, and Russia (just to name a few). This tournament, more-so than any other on earth, truly determines a "world champion" (alright, a case can be made for the World Cup soccer tournament, but that only happens once every four years, so I'm excluding it from consideration).

What bothers me most about the Champions League is the lack of United States involvement. I'm not trying to blame UEFA officials for that, don't get me wrong - I'm saying the U.S. needs to step its game up. Maybe we could start calling it football
(which makes a helluva lot more sense than soccer). Or maybe we could just start playing better. I really think that if a club team from Major League Soccer (the U.S.'s crummy professional version of the sport) begins to win multiple league championships and dominates a few exhibition matches against European competition, the world will take notice.

My hope is that college soccer players (er...should I say "footballers") will take the necessary steps to increase the level of play in America. I mean, how cool would it be to see the New York Red Bulls or Chicago Fire (two MLS teams...yes, I realize you have probably never heard of them) competing in Europe 10-15 years from now against the best the world has to offer?

I think it'd be pretty cool. And I hope future generations of footballers in the U.S. think so too.

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