Travel topics > Activities > Sport > Spectator sports > Association Football in Europe
Europe is gripped by football (often called soccer in some parts of the world) fever every year between September and May: bars show matches, huge arenas host games, children play football in the streets, overweight adults play football on pitches in pub teams. What sets Europe apart in footballing terms from the rest of the world is the sheer quality of the leagues, which are head and shoulders above those from elsewhere around the world.
AC Milan, Ajax, Arsenal, AS Roma, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool FC, Manchester United and Real Madrid are all truly world class teams with world class players that play week in week out against other top rate teams in internationally-known stadia. The premier club competition in Europe, and arguably the world, is the UEFA Champions League.
Attending a football match can be a fantastic way of experiencing a city's culture and getting up close and intimate to locals in a what is in most cases a relatively safe environment (see the "Stay safe" paragraphs below for country-specific advice). Many of the teams also hold stadium tours where you get to take a look at their trophy cabinets (empty or not), club museums and changing rooms, though mostly only of interest to supporters.
The Premier League, run by The Football Association, is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. Football played in the English Premier League tends to be faster than the Italian Serie A, and the stadiums, despite being dogged by hooligan troubles in the 70s and 80s, are very family friendly and safe. The main domestic cup competition, the FA Cup, is currently the oldest football competition in the world.
Top clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United play in front of packed out stadiums every week, and the majority of seats are reserved for season ticket holders, so it can often be tricky to find tickets for their Premier League fixtures. Instead, why not try seeing them play in European Champions League matches, for which there are often tickets available to the general public.
Match tickets range from around £20 for the smaller games of the lower quality teams, up to around £60 for the best seats at the best matches of the big teams, some tickets can be bought on match days at the grounds, but it is best to buy them online well in advance from the clubs' websites.
Top clubs include:
- Arsenal (London) have spent the most number of consecutive seasons in the top division, and play at the Emirates Stadium, which is sadly lacking in atmosphere compared to their old grounds at Highbury.
- Aston Villa (Birmingham) were 1982 European champions and play at Villa Park.
- Chelsea (London), Premier League champions twice in the last three seasons (2015, 2017) and winners of the 2011–12 UEFA Champions League, play at Stamford Bridge.
- Everton (Liverpool) have spent more seasons in the top division than any other team.
- Leicester City (Leicester) completed one of the most astonishing turnarounds in sports history—going from likely relegation in April 2015 to Premier League champions for 2015–16. Play at King Power Stadium.
- Liverpool (Liverpool) play at the famous Anfield stadium, which saw better days in the 1980s when the club won title after title. They have been European champions a total of 5 times, most recently in 2005, making them the most successful English club in European competition.
- Manchester City (Manchester) were the 2013–14 Premier League champions, and play at City of Manchester Stadium (commercially known as Etihad Stadium).
- Manchester United (Manchester) have collected a very healthy trophy haul (most recently the 2016–17 UEFA Europa League), and play at Old Trafford. The first English club to become European champions when they did so in 1968.
- Newcastle United (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) play at St James' Park, also known as the Sports Direct Arena if you wish to annoy a Magpie supporter.
- Tottenham Hotspur (London)
The English Premier League is also well known for some of the intense rivalries between clubs. By far the most famous one is the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United, a rivalry that stems partly from the city rivalry that has existed between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool since the industrial revolution. Of course, there are also many notable local derbies, such as the North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham, the Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton, and the Manchester Derby between Manchester United and Manchester City.
In the 70s and 80s, hooliganism was a major problem in English football, but now it is highly unlikely for violent incidents to occur in and around football stadia. Still, certain precautions must be taken:
- It is very unwise to support opposition teams openly in home sections of the stadia. At the very least you will be shouted at, or possibly ejected from the stadium by the police for your own safety.
- Try not to wear clothing in the opposition's colours in the home areas of the stadia.
Partly due to past problems with hooliganism, certain items allowed in foreign stadia are banned from being taken into football grounds in England. They include aerosols, air horns, bottles, fireworks, flags with poles, flares, glass vessels, smoke bombs and vuvuzelas.
Other strict regulations also apply to football in England. Spectators are not allowed to drink alcohol in view of the pitch, unless they are in an executive box. Standing up for long periods in all-seater stadia is also strongly discouraged. Standing sections are not allowed in top tier stadia and are rare even in the lower leagues.
Don't be alarmed if you see if a visible police presence at certain matches, they are typically deployed with the co-operation of the clubs playing, to ensure that the match remains a safe experience for all the fans. A number of clubs also have visible stewards or marshals inside the stadium.
- Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon) play at Parc Olympique Lyonnais in the adjacent suburb of Décines-Charpieu. The dominant team in French football in the early 2000s; won seven consecutive French championships from 2002 to 2008, a French record.
- Olympique de Marseille (Marseille) play at the Stade Vélodrome. Traditionally one of the great French football powers, they won the Champions League in the early 90s.
- Paris Saint-Germain (Paris) play at Parc des Princes (Paris/16th arrondissement). Had a streak of four titles (2013–2016) ended by Monaco (below) in 2017.
- Girondins de Bordeaux (Bordeaux) play at Stade Chaban Delmas.
- AS Monaco (Monaco) play at Stade Louis II. Although it plays in the French league system, it is not actually based in France but in the neighbouring country of Monaco. It is nevertheless one of the most successful clubs in the French league system, having reached the final of the UEFA Champions' League in 2005, claiming the scalp of Spanish giants Real Madrid in the process.
Although many rivalries exist, the most historically significant one is Le Classique between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille, which stems in large part from a regional rivalry between Paris and the north of France, as well as the class divide between the nobility of Paris and the working class of Marseille.
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” — Former England international Gary Lineker
The highest level league in Germany is called Bundesliga. It has quickly caught up to other top European leagues and the fan scene is known to be one of the healthiest in the world. The Bundesliga has the highest attendance figures of any European league, and at all clubs the fans participate in fan displays and coordinated chanting, creating an excellent atmosphere within the stadiums. The most successful team in Germany is FC Bayern München. Bayern have won more Bundesliga titles than any other club, have won every European cup, and most recently completed "the treble" in 2013, winning the Bundesliga, German Cup, and UEFA Champions League.
The Bundesliga has a relatively large number of contenders for the top ranks, making it a remarkably diversified and unpredictable league, compared to other countries' leagues that are dominated by just a few top teams. A club that was champion or runner-up in the last season may find itself struggling against relegation in the next (and vice versa).
- Bayern München (Munich) (Germany's most successful team and holder of most records)
- Borussia Dortmund (Bayern's chief rival in the 1990s and 2010s)
- Hertha BSC (Berlin)
- Werder Bremen (often a good team, especially in the 2000s, have had trouble since the 2013/14 season)
- Eintracht Frankfurt
- Hamburger SV (the only team to play in the Bundesliga without interruption since its inaugural season in 1963)
- 1. FC Köln (Cologne) (the first Bundesliga champion in 1963/64)
- Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Never been champions but came close several times, and reached a "vice treble" in 2002 when they placed second in the Champions League, the domestic cup and the domestic league)
- Borussia Mönchengladbach (Bayern's chief rival in the 1970s have entered a slow decline since then)
- Schalke 04 (Gelsenkirchen) (always a championship-contender though unable to win the big one since the 1950s. fierce rivalry with Dortmund)
- VfB Stuttgart
- VfL Wolfsburg sponsored by Volkswagen they have managed one national championship so far
The second league (2. Bundesliga) has a high quality level and many long-standing traditional clubs, including:
- 1. FC Union Berlin (a club from East Berlin, had a non-conformist image during GDR times)
- Dynamo Dresden (ex-GDR club, huge fanbase, a part of which is said to be violent)
- Fortuna Düsseldorf (supported by German Punk band "Die Toten Hosen")
- SpVgg Greuther Fürth (Nuremberg's rival from the 1920s, still not much love lost. Nuremberg-Fürth is the most played "Derby" in Germany)
- 1. FC Kaiserslautern (historically, one of Germany's best clubs, the only team to ever win the championship the year after being promoted)
- 1. FC Nürnberg (won nine German chamionships during the early years of the sport, since 1968 - their last championship and only one in the 1963 established Bundesliga - however they have been struggling between promotion and relegation with few truly good seasons in the Bundesliga)
- FC St Pauli (Hamburg "cult club" – based in a bohemian borough, the fan base is considered to be unconventional and left-wing; celebrity fans include Bela B. of Die Ärzte and Turbonegro)
About seven to nine clubs have serious ambitions to get promoted to the Bundesliga so it is a very tough league. The support is not weaker than in the Bundesliga (some say it is even better).
Even in the lower leagues there are many clubs with a healthy fan base so some clubs below the 2nd league have 10,000 visitors per game and more. If you want to "feel" an atmosphere of authentic, not so commercialised football, it might be good to visit a game of one of these teams.
In the Bundesliga violence is not a serious problem due to a high amount of police inside and around the stadium. Just don't support the wrong team in the wrong corner of the stadium and everything will be all right. There is a bigger problem with violence in the lower leagues, especially with regard to some East German clubs, where social issues meet with a sharp decline in sporting success and relevance. German police have an eye on problematic fans even down to the 4th league.
Greece may not have the illustrious football history that its neighbours have, but what the fans certainly do not lack is the passion for their teams, and Greek teams have been known to pull off upsets at European competition. The top tier domestic league in Greece is the Superleague Greece (Ελληνική Σούπερ Λιγκ). The most famous Greek clubs are:
- Olympiacos (Piraeus) - the most successful team domestically
- Panathinaikos (Athens) - the most successful Greek team in European competition, and the only one to have reached the final of the European Cup.
- AEK (Athens)
- P.A.O.K. (Thessaloniki)
By far the largest rivalry in Greece is the Derby of the eternal enemies (Ντέρμπι των αιωνίων αντιπάλων) between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, which can trace its history to a class rivalry, with Olympiacos traditionally being supported by the working class and Panathinaikos traditionally being supported by the nobility.
The top clubs in Italy's Serie A are currently:
- Internazionale (Milan) — Often shortened to just "Inter", and called "Inter Milan" by the English media. Regular contenders, though they haven't won the Serie A crown since claiming the Serie A/Coppa Italia/Champions League treble in 2009–10. Shares its home stadium with AC Milan. Inter is the only team that has never been relegated from Serie A.
- AC Milan (Milan) — Ended Inter's five-year reign atop Serie A in 2010–11. Shares its home stadium with Inter. The second most successful team in European competition after Spain's Real Madrid with a total of 7 titles to its name.
- Lazio (Rome) — Shares its home stadium with AS Roma
- AS Roma (Rome) — Shares its home stadium with Lazio
- Juventus (Turin) — The dominant team now, on a streak of six titles (2011–12 to 2016–17). Having won 61 official national and international titles throughout its history, Juve is also the most successful Italian football club and one of the top teams worldwide.
- Napoli (Naples)
- Genoa (Genoa)
- ACF Fiorentina (Florence)
Among the most notable local football rivalries in the world are the Derby della Madonnina between the Milanese clubs of Internazionale and AC Milan, and the Derby della Capitale between the Roman clubs of Lazio and AS Roma. The Derby della Capitale is the more intense of the two, though the clubs involved in the Derby della Madonnina have been the more successful pair in terms of domestic and European trophies won. Another notable and bitter rivalry is that between Juventus and Internazionale, known as the Derby d'Italia, which involves the two most successful teams in Italian football.
The top league in the Netherlands is the Eredivisie. Traditionally, it has been dominated by three clubs, none of which have been relegated since the formation of the Eredivisie in 1956 (though all had been relegated from the top level before then):
- Ajax (Amsterdam) — One of the most decorated clubs in European football, with 33 national titles, 18 wins in the KNVB Cup (Dutch Cup), four wins in the European Champions Cup/UEFA Champions League, and one UEFA Cup (now UEFA Europa League).
- Feyenoord (Rotterdam) — Not quite as decorated as Ajax, but with a still-impressive 14 national titles, 11 Dutch Cups, a European Cup, and two UEFA Cups.
- PSV (Eindhoven) — Second only to Ajax in domestic titles, with 21. Also has 8 Dutch Cups, plus one European Cup and one UEFA Cup.
However, recent years have seen teams outside the "big three" contend for titles—AZ (Alkmaar) won the championship in 2008–09, and Twente (Enschede) won the title in 2009–10 and finished just behind Ajax in 2010–11.
The KNVB Beker is the more all-round championship of the Netherlands, featuring clubs from the Eredivisie, the best amateurs from the Topklasse, and clubs that have won the district cups. The KNVB Beker is less conform to the same winning clubs than the Eredivisie, and often features Eredivisie clubs winning, though rarely a club wins both the Eredivisie and KNVB Beker. In the past ten years, nine clubs have won the Beker, as opposed to five in the Eredivisie:
- Feyenoord (Rotterdam) defeated Roda JC from Kerkrade in the 2008 edition, and only won the cup again in 2016.
- SC Heerenveen won the 2009 edition after penalties against FC Twente.
- Ajax (Amsterdam) won in 2010, defeating Feyenoord, going to to win the Eredivisie that same year.
- FC Twente (Enschede) won in 2011, beating the winner of the year prior, Ajax.
- PSV (Eindhoven) won against the mildly successful Heracles Almelo in 2012.
- AZ (Alkmaar/Zaanstreek) won the 2013 edition of the Beker against previous winner PSV.
- PEC Zwolle, which had improved a lot over the past years, steamrolled Ajax in the 2014 edition, resulting in a score of 5-1 and a first ever victory of the club in the Beker.
- FC Groningen defeated PEC Zwolle the year after, keeping them from scoring any points that final, and taking their second winning of the cup, making it the first for themselves instead.
- Vitesse (Arnhem) won the KNVB Beker for the first time in 2017, playing against AZ.
The top Portuguese league, the Primeira Liga, has been steadily climbing the European rankings in the 21st century. Many of the country's top clubs play in state-of-the-art grounds, a legacy of the country's hosting of UEFA Euro 2004. The historic "Big Three" clubs have completely dominated the league. None have ever been relegated from the top flight, and they have collectively won 79 of the 81 league championships to date.
- S.L. Benfica (Lisbon) — Boasts the most wins in both of the major domestic competitions, with 34 league titles and 25 Portuguese Cups. Also a two-time winner of the European Champions Cup (now UEFA Champions League) in the early 1960s.
- Sporting Clube de Portugal (Lisbon) — Often incorrectly called "Sporting Lisbon" by English-language media, Benfica's eternal crosstown rival has 18 league titles and 16 Portuguese Cups. They also have a win in the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.
- FC Porto (Porto)— Porto are second to Benfica in domestic trophies, having won the league 27 times and the cup 16 times. However, their accomplishments in European play stand above those of the two big Lisbon clubs. They match Benfica with two wins in the European Champions Cup/Champions League, and have also claimed the UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League twice, most recently in 2011.
The most famous rivalry in Portugal is O Clássico between Benfica and FC Porto, fuelled in part by the rivalry between Portugal's two largest cities, and that both clubs are the most successful Portuguese clubs in domestic and European competition. As with many local rivalries, the Derby de Lisboa between Benfica and Sporting is also an intense one, and has produced many classic matches over the years.
Scotland is a fanatical football country. Per head of population, it has the highest number of football supporters (those who actually attend games) of any country in the World. While clubs in Scotland sometimes struggle to attract world-class players, the standard of football compares well with other European leagues. This is borne out by the successes of Scottish clubs in European competitions from the 1950s to the present. Indeed, Celtic were the first club from any country other than Italy, Spain or Portugal to win the European Cup (now known as the UEFA Champions League) when they defeated Internazionale of Milan in the 1967 final in Lisbon.
42 clubs play in the Scottish Professional Football League, the four-level national football league. At the top, there is the 12-club Scottish Premiership; below that are the Scottish Championship, Scottish League One and Scottish League Two, each with 10 teams. Below League Two, teams take part in regional leagues.
The top football clubs in Scotland include:
- Aberdeen (Aberdeen). Nickname: The (Dandy) Dons. Home ground: Pittodrie. Shirt colour: red
- Celtic (Glasgow). Nickname: The Bhoys, The Tims, The Tic. Home ground: Celtic Park. Shirt colour: green and white hoops. The first British club, and to date the only Scottish club to ever become European champions when they did so in 1967.
- Dundee United (Dundee). Nickname: The Arabs, The Tangerines. Home ground: Tannadice (once (in)famously pronounced "Tanna-dee-chay" by a BBC newsreader to much hilarity north of the border). Shirt colour: tangerine. Relegated to the Championship following the 2015–16 season.
- Heart of Midlothian (Edinburgh). Nickname: The Jambos (Hearts --> Jam Tarts). Home ground: Tynecastle Park. Shirt colour: maroon.
- Hibernian (Edinburgh). Nickname: The HiBees. Home ground: Easter Road Stadium. Shirt colour: green. Currently playing in the Championship after having been relegated following the 2013–14 season.
- Rangers (Glasgow). Nickname: The Teddy Bears, The Gers, The Huns, Sons of William . Home ground: Ibrox Park. Shirt colour: royal blue. Returned to the Premiership for 2016–17 after being forced into the Scottish Football League Third Division (now known as League Two) in 2012 due to bankruptcy.
Fixtures are listed on the clubs' websites and in the local press. Tickets can be purchased directly from the relevant club. Tickets can be hard to come by for matches between Celtic and Rangers (the "Old Firm" derby), for European ties involving Celtic or Rangers and sometimes for home matches of other teams against the 2 big Glasgow clubs. The "Old Firm" derby between Celtic and Rangers is by far the biggest rivalry in Scotland, and also ranks among the most intense in the world as a result of its sectarian undertones; Celtic is traditionally supported by Catholics while Rangers is traditionally supported by Protestants. Incidentally, this makes Old Firm matchdays especially volatile in Northern Ireland—arguably as much as in Glasgow itself.
Stadia are all-seater and generally attending a match is a safe experience. Bear in mind that opposing supporters' seating areas are segregated - avoid cheering for the "wrong" team, or wearing their colours (though the worst that is likely to happen to you is verbal abuse followed by ejection by stewards or police). Trouble often occurs around the city (and indeed, around other towns in Scotland) after derby matches in Glasgow, and (to a lesser extent) Edinburgh. Caution should be exercised on these occasions.
- FC Barcelona (Barcelona), the Camp Nou is the biggest stadium in Europe
- Real Madrid (Madrid), the most successful team in European competition, having been European champions a total of 11 times
- Valencia (Valencia)
- Atlético Madrid (Madrid)
- Villareal (Villa-real)
- Sevilla (Seville)
- Athletic Bilbao (Bilbao), known for its policy of signing only Basque players, and the only club other than the giants of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona never to have been relegated from La Liga.
The biggest rivalry by far in Spanish football is El Clasico between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, and this rivalry goes beyond just football with a long history of politics behind it. Back during the Franco era, Real Madrid was supported by Franco himself and widely regarded as the club of the ruling establishment, and till this day, the club is still strongly associated with the Spanish royal family. FC Barcelona is seen as a symbol of Catalan identity, which was brutally suppressed during the Franco era.
While Turkish clubs have never been European champions, and with the quality of players somewhat below those of the leagues in the major footballing countries, there is no shortage of passion from Turkish football fans, and matches involving both clubs and the Turkish national team regularly result in violent confrontations with the opposing team. The Turkish Süper Lig has traditionally been dominated by three teams, all based in the largest city, Istanbul.
The rivalry among all the three clubs is very intense, though the Intercontinental Derby (Turkish: Kıtalararası Derbi) between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, so named because the two clubs are based on the Asian and European side of Istanbul respectively, is the most famous in all of Turkey. While the class differences between the supporters have since blurred, Galatasaray is traditionally supported by the nobility, while Fenerbahçe is traditionally supported by the working class.
Historically, Wales did not have a national league. The top tier was divided between the Cymru Alliance, for teams in North and Mid Wales, and the Welsh League, for teams in South Wales. Consequently, many of the bigger clubs chose to compete within the English football pyramid. Starting from the 1992/93 season, the League of Wales, now the Welsh Premier League, was founded to form a national competition. The "exiled" clubs were invited to resign their positions in the English leagues, and enter the League of Wales, along with the top teams from the Cymru Alliance and Welsh League. Some of the clubs chose to remain within the English system.
Wales' two largest teams both play in the English league system:
- Swansea City (Swansea) have played in the top-level Premier League since the 2011–12 season. Nickname: The Swans. Home ground: The Liberty Stadium.
- Cardiff City (Cardiff) joined Swansea in the Premier League in 2013–14, but were relegated to the Football League Championship at the end of that season. Nickname: The Bluebirds. Home ground: Cardiff City Stadium.
Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport County and Wrexham all compete at a lower level within the English game.
The biggest clubs in the Welsh Premier League are
- Aberystwyth Town (Aberystwyth)
- Bangor City (Bangor)
- Rhyl FC (Rhyl)
- The New Saints - whose Park Hall stadium is actually just across the English border in Oswestry
Compared to neighbouring England, Welsh Premier League stadiums are small, and attendances are low. In South Wales, the popularity of Rugby Union and the presence of the large exiled clubs, Cardiff and Swansea, conspire to keep attendances down. In North and Mid Wales, the proximity of the glamorous Premiership teams in the English North-West and West Midlands means that many football fans prefer to journey across the border rather than watch their local teams. This often means that attending matches can be a fairly relaxed activity, with a strong community feel at clubs. Tickets are fairly cheap, there is usually a small clubhouse for a drink before and/or after the match, and visitors will generally be made to feel welcome by the locals. Violence between fans is very rare, though bad feelings between fans of Rhyl and Bangor City can sometimes go too far.
- The next FIFA U-17 World Cup will be held in India from 6–28 October 2017.
- The next FIFA World Cup will be held in Russia from 14 June to 15 July 2018. Matches will be held in 11 cities, with the opening match and final in Moscow.
- The next FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup will be held in France from 7–28 August 2018 as a dry run for the following year's FIFA Women's World Cup in that country.
- The next FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will be held in Uruguay from 20 November to 13 December 2018.
- The next FIFA Women's World Cup will be held in France from 1–30 June 2019. Matches will be held in 10 cities, with the opening match and final in Décines-Charpieu, adjacent to Lyon.
- The next FIFA U-20 World Cup will be held in 2019 at a site to be determined.