English Club Soccer: Sorting the relationships among competitions and the trophy hierarchy

The EPL. The FA Cup. UEFA. And alphabet soup aside, the somewhat opaquely titled Community Shield and Carabao Cup. How do these football (hereafter “soccer”) competitions relate to each other, and rank in prestige?

The English Premier League

The English Premier League (EPL or Premier League interchangeably from here on) is arguably the most competitive and prestigious soccer league in the world, with clubs attracting leading players from around the globe.

Formed in 1992 when the top clubs broke away from the rest of English soccer in order to secure a more lucrative television deal, the EPL comprises 20 teams, based primarily in England but which may also be stationed in Wales (fellow U.K. countries Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own premier leagues). Each team plays 38 “fixtures” – one home and one away match against each of the other 19 teams. Three points are awarded for a victory, one for a tie and zero for a loss. At the end of the season teams are ranked according to total points based on match results, with goal differential over the season the first tiebreaker.

Promotion and Relegation

The bottom three EPL finishers are relegated to England’s second highest league: The England Football League Championship. Despite the impressive title, demotion to “the Championship” is considered a disastrous result. Conversely, the top two finishers in the Championship are promoted to the EPL, while teams three through six compete in a playoff to determine the third promotion.

Pride aside, the financial stakes driven by the gaps in attendance and sponsorship opportunities as teams waver between the EPL and the Championship are significant, and battles to gain promotion or avoid relegation are fiercely contested.

Football League One and Football League Two round out England’s top four soccer leagues. Similar approaches to promotion and relegation apply.

Collectively, the Premier League, the Championship, League One and League Two comprise the English Football League (EFL). The principal significance of maintaining a place within the EFL is that clubs are advantaged with respect to participation in the FA Cup – English soccer’s most important competitive venue after the EPL (more on that in a bit).

The EPL and UEFA Champions League

Of critical concern: The top four EPL finishers are awarded entry into the following season’s club championship competition for all of Europe, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League.

The UEFA tourney comprises 32 teams, with 24 drawn from the top finishers in Europe’s 10 strongest premier leagues. The four strongest premier leagues (currently England, Germany, Spain, Italy) each receive four UEFA entries for 16 in total, while the next six leagues are limited to their top one or two clubs for a total of eight more. The remaining eight clubs are determined through a qualifying competition.

For some time, six EPL clubs have generally been viewed as vying for England’s four UEFA slots: London-based Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, along with the only slightly less geographically clustered Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool. In recent years, Manchester City has dominated the EPL, winning five of the last six titles. When it comes to finishing in the top four, the stakes are enormous in terms of global prestige, visibility and sponsorship money. A virtuous cycle is at work, as clubs that regularly compete in the European championship gain an overwhelming advantage in recruiting the most elite players globally.

A point of interest: While on its face it would appear that being crowned the champions of Europe would be a greater cause for celebration than topping the EPL “table,” the reality for an English club is more nuanced: The satisfaction of besting one’s ancient domestic rivals in the world’s most prestigious league carries massive currency.

The FA Cup

Returning to the domestic competition arena, after the EPL championship the most coveted English soccer prize is the FA Cup, played since 1872. The trophy is awarded by the Football Association, the organization charged with overseeing all levels of English soccer, professional and amateur.

As opposed to the EPL’s season-long slate of fixtures and totaling of points based on match results, the FA cup is a “knockout” tournament (lose once and go home). The FA Cup draws several hundred teams as it is open to the top 10 levels of English soccer.

FA Cup matchups are determined by random draw. The EFL clubs (i.e., those clubs residing in the top four leagues) are waived from participation in the first few rounds, which are referred to as the Qualifying Competition. League One and League Two clubs enter at the Competition Proper stage, while EPL and Championship clubs enter yet two rounds later. While “David vs. Goliath” stories are not uncommon over the course of an FA Cup, generally the champion emerges from within the top handful of Premier League clubs.

In terms of importance, winning the FA Cup arguably ranks below finishing as low as fourth in the EPL, as it does not confer participation in the UEFA Championship. The holder of the FA Cup trophy faces off against the EPL champion in the Community Shield match to open the following season of English soccer, with gate proceeds allocated to a range of charities. The Community Shield is considered a secondary competition to the extent that a loss does little to dim the glow of having finished at the top of the EPL or taken home the FA Cup.

Finally, it should be noted that while the FA Cup is without question the premier English soccer tourney, since 1960 the EFL has held its own cup competition limited to the top four leagues. The EFL’s knockout tourney is currently known for sponsorship reasons as the Carabao Cup after the Thai energy drink.

In Summary: Several Ways to “Win” in English Soccer

Depending upon the realistic expectations entering a season – which vary widely between a “top 6” club and a club routinely in the bottom-half of the EPL table – fans and players may celebrate with relish any of the following outcomes:

  • Winning the EPL Championship
  • A top 4 EPL finish (and thus qualifying for the UEFA tourney)
  • Avoiding relegation from the EPL
  • Achieving promotion to the EPL
  • Winning the UEFA Championship (club championship for all Europe)
  • Winning the FA Cup (knockout tourney open to top 10 leagues)
  • Winning the Community Shield (EPL champion vs. FA Cup holder)
  • Winning the EFL Cup a.ka. the Carabao Cup (knockout tourney limited to top four leagues)

Thank you for reading! I hope this breakdown was helpful in understanding the English soccer hierarchy.

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