Traditionally, European soccer leagues take a break over the holiday season. In part, this is a concession to midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere, but it’s also a chance for the “cups” — single-elimination knockout tournaments — to take center stage. Having two or more competitions at the same time can be one of the most confusing things about soccer for new fans. But it’s worth the confusion, because in some ways the cups can be far more entertaining than the day-to-day grind of league play.
Virtually every country in the soccer world has some version of a cup competition. In general, these include — at least in theory — every team in the country. The top teams usually enter toward the later rounds of the tournament, while the tiny semipro teams that play Sunday mornings down at the park have to go through umpteen qualifying rounds. But they’re all part of the same sprawling tournament.
Think of the cup competitions like March Madness, with college basketball playing its postseason tournament while the regular season is still going on. And every team in the country — not just 68 qualifiers — makes the tourney. (I can hear the NCAA bean-counters perking up even now: “Wait, more March Madness?’’)
A few countries have secondary cup competitions, too. Generally, these are restricted-entry tournaments, like the League Cup in England, which only includes teams from the top four divisions. Happily, virtually everyone agrees that this makes those tournaments less, not more, important, and so they are mostly an afterthought.
For world soccer leagues, it’s the closest thing to playoffs that most have, with the excitement of playoffs compounded by the random nature of each round’s draw. Every season, almost every tournament has a few top-division teams that get knocked out by lower-division sides.
Just this week, second-division Bristol City took down mighty Manchester United in the League Cup quarterfinals with a late goal, provoking pandemonium in Bristol as the home fans stormed the field at the final whistle. League soccer just does not have that kind of excitement, which is why soccer fans speak reverently of “the magic of the cup.”
The Premier League, Bundesliga and their ilk are great at identifying the best team over the long haul, but there tends to be a certain boredom about them. Take this year so far: The titles in England, Germany, France and (maybe) Spain are basically decided already for the season.
Meanwhile, the cups in each country are just getting good. The next round for most takes place the first week of January, though there are a couple of mouthwatering Coppa Italia games next week. Seek them out. Sure, cup competitions are secondary in importance to league competitions, but unlike the leagues, the cup format guarantees excitement.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso
• A worldwide survey of pro women’s soccer players revealed that their average salary is $7,200 a year, a big reason that 90 percent of those surveyed have considered retiring from the game early. Even in America, financial pressures cause players to quit or get other jobs early, a big factor that’s holding back the growth of the women’s pro game.
• The Scottish Premiership doesn’t get a lot of worldwide attention, but when perennial champions Celtic lost last week to Heart of Midlothian, it ended the former’s astonishing, record-breaking 69-match unbeaten streak. It was the first domestic defeat for coach Brendan Rodgers, who took over at Celtic in July 2016. A little competition would be good for Scottish soccer; Celtic has won six consecutive titles.
• Keep an eye on the burgeoning disaster at AC Milan, where new owners and a summer of big spending haven’t helped the club in the standings. The club may be torpedoed off the field, as UEFA considers sanctions on AC Milan for breaking its rules regarding owners spending more money than the club brings in. The coach has been fired and fans are berating the players, bringing the club’s 18-year-old goalkeeper to tears in one instance. It’s a tough spot for a club that was once perhaps the best in Europe and, as Twin Cities fans recall, helped christen U.S. Bank Stadium’s debut in a friendly with Chelsea on Aug. 3, 2016.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Barcelona's Lionel Messi with the Golden Boot last weekend
La Liga: Barcelona at Real Madrid, 6 a.m. Saturday, beIN. “El Clásico” is never NOT a big game. But with Barcelona currently 11 points ahead of its Madrid rivals in the La Liga standings, this feels like Real’s last chance to save its season. A home victory, and maybe Madrid can put on some pressure. An away win, and Barca has one hand on the title.
Premier League: Tottenham at Burnley, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. It’s hard to believe, but if you go by the standings, Tottenham is the underdog in this one. The Spurs are one point behind Burnley, which under Sean Dyche has become the ideal “small” club in the Premier League: hard to play against, hard to break down, hard to beat.
Premier League: Manchester United at Leicester City, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Despite a managerial change, Leicester has been the best of the teams that have duked it out in mid-table, winning four of its past five. United’s hope for this season is to stay comfortably in second and hope for a Manchester City swoon.
Serie A: Roma at Juventus, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. Inter stumbled last week and now the top of the Italian table is tighter than ever. Roma trails leaders Napoli by four points and Juventus by three. Playing on the road is no problem for Roma. The Giallorossi are undefeated on their travels this year and are hoping for at least a point in Turin.