I've played and watched soccer my entire life. I fondly remember my autumn weekends as a kid - Saturday would be spent playing in the local youth leagues and Sunday mornings would be spent watching German "football" on channel 11. I grew up emulating the likes of Toni Schumacher and Rudi Voeller.
Now of course, my main focus is on Italian soccer. I still follow all the other European leagues but being in Italy means I'm inundated with the local game. In Italy, soccer is called "Calcio" (pronouced "cal-chyo"). Here's how it's broken down:
The top division is called Serie A. There are currently 20 teams (Squadra) in Serie A. The trophy they play for is called the "Scudetto". Play is a little different from the US in that there is no playoff system. Each team plays each other twice and at the end of the year, whoever has the most points wins the Scudetto for that season. It's the same for pretty much every other soccer league in the world (except the MLS in the US which uses a playoff to determine the champion).
Here's where it gets interesting...
There are also several divisions below Serie A. Next is Serie B, the second division. Below B there are two divisions: C1 & C2. At the end of each season, the 4 teams that finished at the bottom of the standings in each division get relgated to the next division down. Conversely, the 4 teams that finished at the top of the standings get promoted up to the next higher division. So the goal of every team is to keep winning and make it to Serie A. As you would expect, the bigger teams with the most money all reside in Serie A because they can afford to buy the best players. The smaller teams will often bounce back and forth between Serie A and B. The team where I live, Vicenza, is a perfect example.
My first year in Italy, Vicenza was in Serie A, which was great - I went to a few matches and got to see some of the most famous players. Alas, they ended up finishing 4th from the bottom that year and have been in Serie B ever since. As such, going to the matches doesn't hold that much interest for me anymore.
I've learned in my time here that many midlevel teams actually prefer to stay in Serie B because going to Serie A means that they have to spend a lot of money to buy players to compete at the highest level and that usually is more than they can afford. In fact, a few years ago, Vicenza was playing some great ball and looked like a sure bet to get promoted to Serie A. Inexplicably, they tanked in their last 4 or 5 matches and just missed it. There was a lot of talk around town that the owners actually paid off the players and/or coaches to play, shall we say, at less than their ability.
Anyway, the most famous teams in Italian Calcio are AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan. These are the big three and every season usually ends with them in some variation of the top three places. AC Milan may be the most famous, but Juventus is by far the most successful, having won a record 28 Scudettos (and well on their way to number 29 this season). AC Milan is second with 17, Inter third with 13. Juventus plays in Torino (Turin) by the way, which hosts the Winter Olympics next month. The other teams worth mentioning are Fiorentina (Florence), Roma & Lazio (both in Rome), Parma and Sampdoria (Genoa). In the past 15 years, the only two teams besides AC Milan and Juventus to win the Scudetto are Lazio (2000) and Roma (2001). Either AC Milan or Juventus has won it every other year since 1991 so there is not a lot of parity in Serie A.
Of course, there are still incentives to finishing near the top of the table in Serie A even if it doesn't mean winning the Scudetto. In the next installment I'll cover those...