We are now into the start of the Premier League season! In this series -- an effort to help outside sports fans curious about soccer to be able to learn more about it -- so far, we have explained how the Premier League works and why relegation makes it so special. In this installment, I want to explain what these mid-week matches from last week have been all about.
Perhaps you observed the first weekend of Premier League matches and enjoyed them. If you particularly enjoyed watching Manchester City and West Ham, you might have been surprised to see them playing again already on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. In Romania! What's up with that?
Let's start briefly with UEFA (pronounced "you-ay-fuh"). UEFA stands for Union of European Football Associations. It is the governing body of European soccer. Said another way, it is the organization in charge of European soccer. It runs the Euro tournament (perhaps you remember Euro 2016 from this past summer), the Champions League, and the Europa League.
The Champions League is the holy grail of European club soccer. Every club ultimately wants to do two things: 1) win its own country's league and 2) win the Champions League. For the victorious club, winning the Champions League means being the best football club in all of Europe.
Here's how it works: Every country plays out its league season each year. At the end of the year, the top teams in each country's league advance to play in the Champions League the following year.
The Champions League always takes place at the same time as the league season. The challenge for the top clubs is to balance both at the same time -- in England, that means playing Premier League matches on the weekends and Champions League matches during the week.
The best countries gets four clubs into the Champions League. The next tier of countries get three clubs, then two, and then the smallest countries get only its champion.
England, of course, gets four clubs into the Champions League. This is why you hear pundits discussing the importance of finishing in the "top four" in the Premier League. The four best clubs in the Premier League in this season that just started will play in next year's Champions League.
In this year's version of the Champions League, the four clubs representing England are Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester City. Since the new league season has just begun, so has the Champions League. That's why Manchester City was in Romania four days after barely beating Sunderland last week.
Blessing and Curse
As you might expect, getting to participate in the Champions League is both a blessing and a curse. It is lucrative to play in the tournament, and everyone wants to play against the best in the world. But handling all of those matches is difficult for managers and players.
No player can play every Premier League and Champions League match all season long. Managers rotate their squads, changing the players who play with each match in order to keep them fresh. It's a challenge for managers...and fantasy soccer managers.
It's a problem, though, that every club wants to have. This year, it's a problem for Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal, and City. They are thankful for it, even if it means a trip to Romania on a random August Tuesday afternoon.