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In most North American sports, the goal is to make the playoffs. While everyone dreams of winning a championship, only one team can lift the trophy. Reaching the postseason, however, is usually the barometer for an acceptable season. In the world of soccer, though, things are a bit different.

Let’s consider the English Premier League as an example. There is no postseason there; whoever is sitting in first place at the end of 38 matches has won the title. At the same time, though, there is a secondary goal on the table: finishing in the top four.

Again, through a North American lens, pushing for a fourth-place finish seems bizarre. Who wants to celebrate finishing behind three other clubs? Well, in soccer, that placement can make all the difference. Let’s break it down.

The top four Premier League finishers earn a ticket into the following season’s Champions League

Before going any further, we need to establish another truth about European soccer. For the most part, clubs compete in different competitions at the same time. For the biggest teams around the continent, that means chasing a Champions League title.

Qualification for that elite competition varies depending on each club’s domestic league, but the Premier League’s strength makes it rather straightforward for English teams. If you finish in the top four places, you earn a ticket to the following edition of the Champions League.

While there are all sorts of quirks for European qualification — other finishes get you into lower tiers of UEFA action, and winning the domestic cups can also affect things — aiming for a top-four finish is a simple way to care of business. If you can end the year with that bracket, things couldn’t have gone too badly, and, perhaps more importantly, you’re positioned to keep the ball rolling.

Why does a top-four finish and a place in the Champions League matter?

So, now that we’ve established that finishing in the top four punches a Premier League club’s team to the Champions League, you may be wondering why that really matters. Is playing in one European competition that much different than playing in another?

Beyond the prestige factor — that may seem “soft,” but it does matter to supporters, especially when it’s been a while since they’ve seen their club at the top European table — reaching the Champions League brings two main benefits. The first of those is money.

While the exact payouts vary depending on the year, being in the highest level of competition really does pay off. As laid out by Swiss Ramble in a 2021 Twitter thread, simply qualifying for the 2021-22 Champions League earned each club about €15.6 million. Obviously, winning matches and reaching successive rounds would bring more and more money. By contrast, let’s look at the Europa League, which is UEFA’s second-tier competition. If your club claimed the absolute maximum amount of money, the pot would only be about €23 million.

Even as it’s become more and more commonplace for owners to fund massive spending sprees, that cash still matters. Consider Arsenal during their time out of the Champions League. Even as the club kept spending money in the transfer market, work had to be done on the contractual front to balance the books. Paying Champions League wages when you’re only earning Europa League money isn’t a recipe for long-term stability.

The second factor also affects player recruitment and retention. Playing Champions League football allows a club to offer the chance to shine on the biggest stage. At the end of the day, professional athletes are human beings with hope and dreams. While money talks, sometimes you need to appeal to something greater to get a deal over the line.

Every team has different goals heading into the season. For the most part, though, securing a top-four finish means that the campaign was worthwhile.

Why do Premier League teams want to finish in the top four?

By finishing in fourth place or higher, Premier League teams punch their ticket to the following season’s Champions League. That, in turn, brings money, prestige, and the potential to attract top-notch players to the club.


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