Travel topics > Activities > Sports > Spectator sports > Association football
Association football, also known as soccer, or in many places just football, is the world's most popular sport. Not only does it have the most fans of any sport worldwide, but it also inspires the passions of fans to a level rarely seen in any other sport. Unlike in most other sports, rivalries in association football often go beyond mere sporting rivalries, instead tracing their roots much deeper to more contentious issues such as politics and religion.
The season for football varies by country. Freezing winters, rainy summers, or competition with more popular national sports lead to it being a winter sport in some countries, and a summer sport in others. Many Latin American leagues, and some others around the world, have adopted a split season format.
Association football is played between teams of 11 players, which comprise of a goalkeeper and 10 outfield players. There objective of the game is to score more goals than your opponent. Players are not allowed to touch the ball with any part of their arms or hands, and doing so is an infringement known as handball. An Infringement is punished by a free kick to the opponent from the spot that the infringement occurred. An infringement within the opponent's penalty box results in a penalty kick, in which one of the attacking players can attempt a shot at goal unimpeded by the opposition, with only the goalkeeper between the kick taker and the goal. More serious infringements can result in a yellow card, in which the player is given a warning, or a red card, in which the player is ejected from the game and cannot be substituted. Two yellow cards also automatically result in a red card.
While most of the top African players ply their trade in Europe rather than in their home countries, there is certainly no shortage of passion from African football fans. Consider watching an international match, as many world-class African players will return from Europe to play for their respective national teams. The main continental club competition is the CAF Champions League. Men's national teams compete for the Africa Cup of Nations, which is held in odd-numbered years.
While the Egyptian national team has often underperformed on the world stage, Egyptian clubs have largely dominated African continental competitions. The top division in Egyptian domestic football is the Egyptian Premier League. By far the largest rivalry in Egypt is the Cairo Derby between Al Ahly and Zamalek. Violent incidents between fans of the two rival clubs are a regular occurrence.
Soccer is the most popular sport in South Africa. Like other sports, it has also been tied up in the bitter history of racial politics in the country. To this day, the popularity of various sports largely correlates with one's ethnic background; rugby union is the most popular sport among Afrikaners, cricket among English-speaking whites, while soccer dominates among black South Africans. That said, since the fall of Apartheid, like the other sports, soccer is increasingly being enjoyed by South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds.
While the South African national team has underperformed on the international stage, its domestic league is one of the best funded in Africa. The top division in South Africa is the South African Premier Division. Its most popular clubs are Johannesburg-based Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, while Pretoria-based Mamelodi Sundowns and SuperSport United are also making inroads.
Many top Asian players ply their trade in Europe rather than in their home countries, though many of the wealthier countries in the region keep most of their best players at home. While football passion is widespread in the continent, it's not uniform — many key countries in the region have more popular sports. For example, cricket dominates the sports scene in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; the Philippines is wildly passionate about basketball; the most widely-followed sport in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan is baseball; and Australia (which for football purposes is grouped with Asia instead of its home region of Oceania) has multiple sports that draw more attention than football. The main continental club competition is the AFC Champions League. Men's national teams compete for the AFC Asian Cup, held in the year after the FIFA World Cup.
Australia, where the sport is usually called "soccer" instead of "football", is unique in that soccer is at best the third-most popular type of football in the country. Australian rules football and rugby league are indisputably more popular than soccer, with rugby union also enjoying significant popularity (though in the 2010s soccer has surpassed the 15-man code). Cricket is also a national obsession during its season. That said, the country has enjoyed a soccer boom in the 21st century, with both the men's and women's national teams regularly qualifying for World Cups, and Europe's top domestic leagues regularly featuring Australian players. Australia is a member of Asia's football governing body instead of Oceania's, meaning that the national teams compete for the Asian Cup and men's club teams (except the one New Zealand-based team in the country's top league) can qualify for the AFC Champions League.
The top men's league is the A-League, with 11 teams (10 in Australia and one in New Zealand) in the current 2019–20 season and another Australia-based side joining in 2020–21. The league does not operate like most sports leagues in the world — it does not employ promotion and relegation (in which poorly-performing teams are dropped to a lower league, replaced by top performers from the second level). Teams are franchises granted by the league, and remain in the league unless they fold. (Sports in the US and Canada also operate on this model.) Due to competition from the country's other football codes, all of which are traditionally winter sports, the A-League season spans two calendar years, meaning that it runs parallel to most northern hemisphere leagues.
The top women's league is the W-League, which has 9 teams (as of 2019), all based in Australia, that are mostly run by A-League sides. The season runs at the same time as the A-League, though women's teams typically play in smaller stadiums than those of the men's league. Notably, many top W-League players head north to play in the NWSL in the US, which plays during the northern summer. In international competition, Australia's women's team performs much better than the men's counterpart, and usually performs well at the Olympics and World Cup.
Football has been the country's most popular spectator sport since the turn of the 20th century. The top competition is the Chinese Super League (website in Chinese only), which has 16 teams (as of 2019). In the late 2010s, it has competed strongly with North America's Major League Soccer, and with leagues in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, as a late-career destination for European and South American stars.
Football generally plays second fiddle to cricket in India, where the latter sport is a national obsession that is often likened to a religion. The city of Kolkata is an exception to this rule, and is a football-crazy city that is home to India's two most celebrated football clubs: Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Both teams contest the Kolkata derby, which is widely regarded as the oldest and most intense football rivalry in all of Asia. Unlike most countries, India has not one but two separate football leagues at the top division; the I-League and the Indian Super League, with the two aforementioned clubs playing in the latter.
Football is the national sport of Iran, which is one of the powerhouses of Asian football, with its national team regularly qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. The top division of Iran's domestic football league is the Persian Gulf Pro League (website in Persian only). By far the biggest rivalry in Iran is the Tehran derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, for which virtually the entire country comes to a stop. Due to Iran's strict Islamic moral code, only men are allowed into football stadiums, and women may only watch the game on television.
Baseball has been Japan's most popular sport since before World War II, but football, locally called サッカー (sakkā) (from "soccer"), has steadily grown in popularity since the 1990s. The country supports a men's professional league system known as the J.League, with its top level being the J1 League.
Baseball is South Korea's most popular sport, though the popularity of soccer has spiked substantially since the South Korean national team reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002. The K League is South Korea's men's professional league system, with its top division being the K League 1.
- Main article: Association football in Europe
While many other areas have fans that are no less passionate, Europe stands out for the sheer quality of its domestic leagues, which are head and shoulders above those in the rest of the world. The dream of most top players from all around the world is to play for one of Europe's top clubs such as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Bayern München or Juventus, and Europe's continental club competition, the UEFA Champions League is widely regarded to be the best in the world. Most die-hard fans regard the quality of football in the UEFA Champions League to be even higher than that in the FIFA World Cup. Men's national teams compete in the UEFA European Championship, more commonly known as Euro (year), held in the middle year of the FIFA World Cup cycle (also the same year as the Summer Olympics).
Association football (at least the men's version) is generally a fringe sport in the two main English-speaking nations of the United States and Canada, though it is the national sport of several Spanish-speaking countries in the region, and is also popular in much of the English-speaking Caribbean. The main continental club competition of North America is the CONCACAF Champions League, which has been dominated by Mexican clubs, with Costa Rican and American clubs occasionally breaking the Mexican stranglehold on the competition. Men's national teams compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, held in odd-numbered years.
Much like its neighbour to the south, Canada has been slow to embrace soccer, with the sports landscape dominated by ice hockey. Soccer has nonetheless boomed in the 21st century, especially in the country's three largest metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, which all field teams in the United States-based MLS. In addition, Canadian players have occasionally made it into the top European leagues. In 2019, the country launched a new top-level men's league, the Canadian Premier League, initially with 7 teams; an eighth team is joining for the 2020 season. Although Canada's soccer authorities consider the CPL its top professional level, MLS is clearly superior to the CPL in both level of play and popularity. In fact, the CPL chose to largely avoid competition with MLS, placing only one of its charter teams in an MLS market, and the new team for 2020 is also in a non-MLS market. The CPL regular season runs from late April to October, and is split into two halves (much like many Latin American leagues). The winners of the two halves of the season meet in a one-off match for the overall championship. (If a team wins both halves of the season, the final instead involves that team and the second-placed team over the entire season.)
Canada has no top-level women's competition, though like the U.S., its women's national team performs much better than the men's counterpart on the international stage. The country's national federation instead helps fund the US-based NWSL (National Women's Soccer League), and its national team players have guaranteed access to roster slots in that league.
Football is the national sport of Costa Rica, which has emerged as a regional powerhouse in the 21st century that is increasingly threatening to break the Mexican and American stranglehold on continental competitions.
Football is the national sport of Mexico, and while the Mexican national team has somewhat languished behind those of South America, there is no shortage of passion from Mexican football fans. The top domestic league in Mexico is the Liga MX, which is one of the richest domestic leagues outside Europe. Though many rivalries exist, by far the largest one is El Súper Clásico between Mexico City-based América and Guadalajara-based Chivas, with matches between the two sides guaranteed to sell out way in advance. Besides the aforementioned two, Cruz Azul and Pumas, both based in Mexico City, round up the "Big Four".
Though its popularity still lags far behind the three biggest sports of American football, baseball, and basketball, soccer has enjoyed a major surge in popularity in the U.S. since the turn of the 21st century, thanks in part to a growing Latino population, and the U.S. men's national soccer team has performed decently in the World Cup since 2002. The MLS (Major League Soccer) will have 26 teams in the 2020 season—23 in the U.S. plus three in Canada, with four more U.S. teams to be added by 2022. Its Designated Player Rule (which allows each team to exceed the league's salary cap to sign up to three players) has made it a preferred destination for top players from European leagues who are past their prime as well as younger talent from around the world. Because of the schedules of other U.S. sports, the MLS regular season runs March to October, with MLS Cup playoffs from October to December.
In women's soccer, the U.S. is the world's dominant force, having won more Olympic gold medals and World Cups than any other team. The country's main league is the NWSL (National Women's Soccer League), which unlike MLS operates solely in the US. The league has 9 teams as of 2020, with one more confirmed to be joining in 2021. The NWSL season largely parallels the MLS season, but ends earlier, with the playoffs ending in late October.
Oceania is a backwater for association football, with both codes of rugby ruling the roost. Since Australia competes within the Asian association football structure, New Zealand is the only country of note in the sport, but even there it is only the third most popular sport after rugby union and cricket. Other countries mostly serve as the whipping boys for New Zealand in international competitions, though they have on rare occasions managed to pull off upsets.
The main continental club competition in Oceania is the OFC Champions League, while the main competition for national teams is the OFC Nations Cup, both run by the Oceania Football Confederation.
New Zealand does not have a fully professional domestic soccer league, with its only fully professional club, the Wellington Phoenix, playing in Australia's A-League instead. The top domestic soccer league in New Zealand is the semi-professional New Zealand Football Championship, which features 10 teams from around the country.
Along with Europe, South America is generally considered to produce the world's best footballers, and their fans are certainly no less passionate, with violent incidents between fans of opposing sides being a regular occurrence. In much of the continent, it is often said that football is not just a sport but the national religion. Although most of the top South American players ply their trade in Europe, the local leagues are generally of a high standard too, and if you're lucky, you may be able to catch one of the future superstars of European football in action. Also consider watching a match between national teams, as many Europe-based players will make the trip back to South America to play for their respective national teams. In particular, the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is widely regarded as one of the world's most iconic rivalries. The main continental club competition in South America is known as the Copa Libertadores. Men's national teams compete in the Copa América; from 2020, it will be held in the middle year of the FIFA World Cup cycle (also the same year as the Summer Olympics and UEFA Euro).
Argentinians take their football very seriously; the top division in Argentinian domestic football is the Primera División, also known as the Superliga. Perhaps no match anywhere else in the world inspires more passion than Superclásico between the Buenos Aires teams of River Plate and Boca Juniors, with Boca Juniors traditionally regarded as the club of the working class, and River Plate traditionally regarded as the club of the upper class. The rivalry is so acrimonious that rioting, and even stabbings between fans of both sides are a regular occurrence.
Besides the aforementioned two clubs, the other clubs that command strong support include Independiente, Racing and San Lorenzo. Collectively, these five clubs are known as the "Big Five" (Los 5 Grandes) of Argentinian football.
Perhaps no other country inspires football passions like Brazil. The Brazilian style of football is particularly known for its beauty, and is often called samba football. The top domestic competition in Brazil is the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, also known as the Brasileirão.
Due to Brazil's immense size (larger than either Australia or the contiguous United States), the distance between many of its major cities, and economic issues, national competitions developed much later than they did in most of the world. A national championship was not established until 1959, and the Brasileirão did not exist in its current form until 1971. Before that time, Brazilian domestic football consisted of state-level competitions, which operate to this day and are followed every bit as passionately as the Brasileirão. Today, state competitions typically run from January to late April or early May, with the Brasileirão occupying the rest of the calendar year.
As would be expected of a country so passionate about its football, numerous rivalries exist throughout the country. Some of the more famous ones are Fla-Flu between the Rio de Janeiro sides Flamengo and Fluminense; the Derby Paulista between the São Paulo sides Palmeiras and Corinthians, and Grenal between the Porto Alegre sides Grêmio and Internacional. Other Brazilian clubs that enjoy strong support include São Paulo-based Santos and São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro-based Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, and Belo Horizonte-based Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro.
Uruguay has a proud footballing tradition, having produced numerous world-class players and won two FIFA World Cups despite having a population of only 3 million. The top domestic football competition in Uruguay is the Primera División. The Clásico del fútbol uruguayo between the two Montevideo clubs of Peñarol and Nacional is the biggest football rivalry in Uruguay, and matches between the two sides are guaranteed to draw partisan sellout crowds.