Football in England is a big sport. Although its mid-90s popularity peak has passed, the game is still an important aspect of many people's lives. A lot of professional football is played, with numerous tournaments, extensive TV coverage (extensive to the point of overreaching itself and collapsing from the financial pressure), and a following of millions. This is an explanation of how it all works.

How is football organised in England?

There are 92 fully professional clubs, ranging from the world-famous - e.g. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal - to such obscurities as Exeter City and Boston United (from the bustling metropolis of Boston, Lincolnshire). Clubs compete in two main types of competition - league and cup.

League games represent most of the football played in a season, and are the main indicator of a club's level of success. The league system is divided into four divisions - the Premier League at the top, and the First, Second and Third Divisions beneath it. Over the season (lasting August to May), each club plays each other club in its division twice, being awarded three points for a win and one for a draw ("tie"). At any time during the season, if two or more teams are equal on points, goal difference is used to separate them. This is simply the amount of goals scored by a team in its league games minus the goals conceded. If goal difference is equal, the team with more goals takes the higher position.

In the unlikely event that, at the end of the season, two teams have the same amount of points and have scored and conceded the same amount of goals, their positions are decided by a play-off.

Cup tournaments are simple knockout competitions, with clubs randomly drawn to play each other in each round, usually at one club's ground or the other. There is no seeding in English domestic cup competitions, although in most cups, the higher-ranked teams enter sometime after the first round. Cup competitions take up less of a club's time than the league, but that doesn't mean they're not taken seriously.

What trophies do clubs compete for over the course of the season?

The 92 professional clubs are split into four divisions as described above. At the top is the Premier League, currently sponsored by Barclaycard, officially known as the FA Barclaycard Premiership, and holding 20 teams. The team finishing top at the end of the season wins the Championship, the top honour in English domestic football. This team and the teams directly below it (currently three) gain entry to the heroically misnamed Champions League, the biggest European club competition. A certain number of teams below them gain entry to the UEFA Cup, the other major European cup tournament. For both competitions, the exact quota of teams from England is decided each season by UEFA, the European governing body. Meanwhile, the bottom three teams in the Premiership are relegated to the First Division.

Which is, of course, the second highest division. The 72 professional clubs below the Premiership all compete in the Football League, which is a much older body. This consists of 24 clubs each in the First, Second and Third Divisions, which are of course really the second, third and fourth, being below the Premiership. Until 1992 the numbering made sense - the Football League governed all clubs, and the divisions were called One to Four. But around this time the top clubs grew agitated by the lack of money in the game, and football's general nadir in the 1980s, and broke away to form the Premier League. The Football League is currently sponsored by Nationwide building society.

In Divisions One and Two, the top two teams are promoted to the division above. The next four compete for promotion in the playoffs. The bottom three teams are relegated from the First, and the bottom four teams from the Second. This way, the composition of all four divisions changes every year. In Division Three, the top three teams are promoted, and the next four compete in the play-offs for the fourth promotion.

The playoffs work like this: The top and bottom of the four, and the two in the middle, play each other in two-legged semi-finals. The winners of each meet in the final (one-legged), and the winner of that match takes the final promotion place along with the automatically promoted teams.

The bottom two teams in Division Three are relegated to the Conference. This is a division of 22 semi-professional clubs lying somewhere between full-time and amateur football: each season it promotes the top team and one playoff winner to the Third Division. Being relegated to the Conference (also currently sponsored by Nationwide) is an enormous blow for a professional club; in recent years, few teams have returned. Below the Conference, which relegates three teams every season, lies the realm of amateur football.

So what about the cups? The most important is the world-famous FA Cup. In principle, any team in the country can compete. Hundreds of completely obscure amateur sides do so every year, and a few, after an intense round of qualification games, reach the first round of the competition proper. They are joined by the teams from the Second and Third Divisions, and some from the First - all professional clubs qualify automatically. The remaining clubs from the Premiership and First Division join in the third round. The sixth round is the quarter-finals, the seventh the semis, the eighth the final, and the eventual winners gain a place in the UEFA Cup, as well as lots of glory. If they have already have a UEFA Cup place by virtue of their league position, they assume the FA Cup berth and the league berth for the UEFA Cup passes to the league team below them. FA Cup matches are one-legged, taking place at one of the team's home grounds, except the neutrally-venued final and semi-finals. Draws are settled first by replays, then extra time, then penalties.

The second most important cup is the League Cup, known colloquially by whoever happens to be sponsoring it (currently brewers Carling). Previous sponsors have included Coca-Cola and Worthington. The League Cup is open only to the 92 league sides and is much newer than the FA Cup. In principle the two are equally difficult, but the League Cup is less prestigious. The winner gains a place in the UEFA Cup, although this has long been a matter of dispute. Games in this competition are two-legged (except for the final), and draws are settled by extra time and then penalties.

In domestic football, the only other notable cup competition is a corporate-sponsored trophy (currently known as the LDV Vans Trophy), competed for the by the teams in the Second and Third Divisions. It's a reasonably big deal for the clubs involved, as the final involves a big day out (currently at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium) and prize money for the winners.

These competitions cover all of the notable domestic football played in a season by the professional clubs. Ultimately, how good a club is will be judged in terms of its league position. The top Premiership clubs, such as Manchester United and Arsenal, are multimillion-pound businesses with superstar players. The lower Premiership clubs, e.g. Southampton, are fairly famous among the general public but not at such a high level. level. Players in the Football League, although they may be heroes to a few fanatical locals, are more or less low-profile.

Links: - Barclaycard's official Premier League site. - The Football League's official site. - Nationwide's Football League page. - An excellent resource for data on football in England and other countries. - English football's governing body, the Football Association.