Comparing recreational football leagues between North America (Toronto) and Europe (Barcelona/Valencia/Paris)


Ever wondered what the difference of play when it comes to football between North America and Europe? Yes we know and admit that Europe > North America but how different is the pace, the skill level, the intensity, and the play style to name a few. Today I’m going to talk to about these so that if you, a futbolista, ever plan to do the same thing I did and go to Europe just to play casual football with the locals (or if you’re just curious), you’ll know what to do and what it’s like.


First in order to start stating the comparison, let me tell you about me and my situation so you can have a relative point of comparison.

  • Mid 30s, average-yet-progressively-improving skill from defence to midfield
  • Not really a fast runner
  • Conscious about health and fitness but not regimented enough to eat just chicken and rice only for years back to back. I’m not trying to go pro
  • I play recreational league 80% of the time in Toronto and 20% competitive. I skill-wise no problems measuring up with competitive league. Most of the time I just don’t want additional stress or injuries. Lately though, I’m slowly trying to make competitive league my norm, if I can. Level up and all
  • When I travel to a football nation, I bring my cleats and I make it a point to play with the locals. Just casual games, self-organized, or event driven; just nothing pro level.
  • So far, I’ve played 6 times already in Europe
  • Since I’ve played in several cities, I would rank them as: Barcelona, Valencia, and Paris in that order (for your reference later).

Alright, now that terms are set. Here are the (big) differences I’ve noticed between how we (Toronto/Canada/NA) play recreationally and how Europe plays

1. No “rec” league

So in Toronto, you can find recreational games and leagues that’s separate from intermediate/competitive leagues. It’s pretty self explanatory: the first one’s for fun, more beginner-friendly, while the other is…competitive.

In Europe, there’s no segregation. There are just leagues (or games). It’s a free-for-all 😂. That’s it. Experienced and skilled people and at the same time the beginner ones all play in the same level. It sounds bad/tough at first but I guarantee you that it’s good in the long run. That’s how they keep the bar high. It’s tough (but not necessarily bad) for beginners because you’ll be steamrolled. But it’s actually good because you’re playing with the intermediate ones that your learning is accelerated without you knowing it.

On one hand you can argue that split leagues give you a more conducive learning environment when starting (which is very true), but in the bigger picture you’re trading experience and learning for comfort. Different strokes for different folks. There’s no one right or wrong.

2. Things are fast

Every time I mention this, people just think: “oh you mean they run fast”. Sure they actually do but that’s a very small fraction of what I mean.

When I say things are fast, I mean:

  • they’re fast to sprint yes
  • they’re fast in making decisions (If you’ve heard the proper training that “you have to know what to do with the ball before you receive the ball”, yea ALL of them know that by heart compared to here in Canada so the ball’s just bouncing around like a pingpong. In less than 2 seconds they’ve either passed or taken a shot already.
  • also, based on my recent trip, I find that defensively, they’re like this too. The point above assumes your team has the ball. But for them, even while defending, they’re reading you too. Because I’ve noticed that when I was playing and when my team has the ball, I know what to do already before I get the ball, but the man covering me is also reading the game/me that when the ball is coming towards me there is almost always a defender just behind it. So if you really don’t know what to do with the ball before you receive it, you’re fucked.

    Oh you’re gonna pass? they’ve calculated already your passing options and they’ve done a good job cover shadowing and closing your options. At best, you’ll have a difficult passing opportunity.

So I’m not just talking about physical agility but rather mental agility mostly.

3. No subs

Here in Toronto, teams ideally want subs..lots of them. It’s because it’s not uncommon to experience that you have a 6v6 league and then you have 10 people in your roster but then 5 don’t show up on games.

Admittedly our fitness isn’t up there (probably because we keep on indulging ourselves with subs) hence the preference for subs.

Also, the way we sub here is just like hockey or like tag-teaming in wrestling: you can call to sub out any time, you exit anywhere and your teammate enters from anywhere (not like the usual center)

In Europe, at least those that I’ve played in, there are no substitutions.

Let me clarify, it’s not because you are not allowed, it’s because there are no other extra person on the field.

Let me clarify even further: this isn’t because it’s 8v8 and they had an open invitation and only exactly 16 people showed up. No. When they organize an 8v8 game, they only invite exactly 16 people to play.

They prefer it that way. The want it as such and honestly I can see the big benefit of it.
First, everyone equally and consistently experiences game time. You’re not a bench warmer. Two, you get your strength and stamina worked up. Three, the more play time you have (and with very competent and skilled players), the more you level up.

“So how do they rest!?”

Well, they don’t; at least on a 1hr game. If the field’s available for longer, they would all take a break as a group. They don’t individually sub (again, there’s no sub), they just call halftime and everybody gets a break.

But if it’s 1hr, they just soldier it out and this is normal for them. Again, if this is a usual game then your personal stamina will just naturally improve to handle 1hr games.

There’s another way, which segues to my next point.

4. Being a GK is not a big deal

This is one of those points that I mean many things to it and people just assume what I’m talking about. Let’s split this into two points.

Being a GK is not frowned upon

Here in NA, everybody hates being a GK. Everyone wants to be the forward/striker (this one I think is universal lol). So what we do is we look for dedicated GKs so we can all roam the field. If there is no dedicated GK available then omg is it a drama. No one volunteers, everyone avoids eye contact omg haha. It’s like people who owe you money LOL.

If you volunteer, good luck getting out of that. You will probably be the GK the whole game. If you decide as a group, whoever gets mentioned (other than yourself) will make a fuss about it or just intentionally do a shitty job or just render as little time as possible.

In Europe, it’s…automated…and equal (at least for the paid/organized games).

Paris goalkeeping

I’ll get to my Paris experience first. With my experience there, I’ve played self organized games and we actually had dedicated GKs. No, not because someone was voluntold but rather there are GK players that actually want to play to GK!

Europe in general, football’s a big sport right? It’s the dominant sport. So there’s so much people that statistically you’re not just left with a small proportion who wants to be strikers. There are a lot of people that actually play but they really just want to play mid, or defence, or even GK.

Spanish goalkeeping

With Spain, how they do it is I think very equitable and impressive. If there are 60mins and there’s 8 of you, then that’s 7.5mins each. At the start of the game before kickoff and while you’re strategizing with your teammates what formation and how you guys will play, you will also count off one by one. Each person will be randomly assigned a number from 1-8. The number you get will represent the order of goalkeeping. So player 1 will be the keep for the first 7.5mins and then player 2, and so on.

Since it’s organized, there’s a person in charge that keeps the time and yells it out.

What I find beautiful about it is no one makes a fuss about it, even the good ones and even the strikers. First, since there are no subs, this is the only form of sub or rest you’ll ever get in your 1hr game. You get 7.5mins. So they actually want/need/prefer it.

The other is that, for whatever reason, everyone’s ok with it. Because you would think that a ballhog, selfish striker, very-athletic-don’t-need-no-rest guy would be like “fuck it, I want to run I don’t want to GK”. But nope, I haven’t experienced that. Organizer calls out the number after 7.5mins and everyone shifts. No ego, no acting up, no delaying, and no one asking another “hey, can you take my GK spot too? because I’m good and I can get us a goal etc etc”. Nothing, no bitching around, they just…do.

IN FACT I did the opposite wherein I want to take on another person’s GK slot because I was really gassed and we both know that he’s better than me. But nope, in all scenarios I was actually denied.

The level of gameplay makes goalkeeping “easy”

No I don’t mean that the net’s small or everyone shoots a sloppy shot that it’s easily defendable/catchable.

What I mean by this is that their level of skill and gameplay makes all the action happen in the middle of the pitch. It’s the great attackers clashing with the great defenders and they are just truly wonderful to watch.

Here in NA…

Your team’s strikers are the fucking laziest mf when it comes to defending lol. Strikers would argue that “hey I’m conserving energy for offense”. You just wait, you’ll be embarrassed with what I’m about to say lol. The midfielders are balanced when they defend. They defend yes but not as hard as actual defenders.


Well it just fucking feels like a never-ending high press every time! They’re high pressing you when you have the ball and if your team’s defending and you’re the striker you can’t slouch like how we do here in NA. They expect you to do your job and at the very least make it difficult for the other team to advance the ball from defense to mid. If you don’t, you’ll get an earful.

That said, going back to GK, it becomes easy for you because everyone’s doing their job so all the action is in the middle. It also kind of becomes almost binary. It’s either you have good defenders in your team that they don’t even get a good shot on target or the opposing team’s striker is so good that he overpowers your defender. And if this happens, world knows you have less than 1% chance of saving the ball. Your teammates are not even going to give you shit if you don’t save it. They know. Just imagine a striker coming at you with insane dribbling skills that he passed through your defenders and he can (and will) shoot a cannon of a kick even at point blank range.

5. Climate’s gonna get you

This isn’t exactly unique to Europe. I’m also just mostly talking about Spain. What I mean with this point is that it gets so hot that it’s hard to play (if you’re not used to it).

Again this isn’t unique to Spain. It gets hot here too in Toronto. It touches 30ºC and I’ve had a few clinics between 2-4pm during the brunt of summer and it was hot (but dry). Turf gets so hot that it pierces through my then-cheap cleats.

What I just find notable with this one is the combination of: “It’s so hot and humid that running across the field is work in itself” but also having to measure up with these top-level (for me at least) players. You’re like a fish out of the water and you’re forced to play fencing…which requires arms and legs.

They’re just on a different level at that point.

6. They’re a melting pot of talents

If you’re playing with just Spaniards, it’s just a beauty and it’s impressive already. But since it’s EU and it’s cheap to travel around there, it’s very common to find Brits, French, even South Americans playing there too.

Their expectations of the football environment are high. They know it’s a challenge there in Spain. Also, their individual skill levels are all up there as well. So what ends up happening is you’re playing with these great players from all over the place.

In Valencia I played with a good Italian defender, a Brit that’s just fast and strong, and there’s a Brazilian who just fucking plays jogo bonito. It was coed so there was also a German girl who knows what she’s doing and she has the height and Spanish/South American girl who has the handles too.

In my recent Barcelona trip, I played with Brazilians (3) and they insisted to be in the same team so hell they really played jogo bonito lol. There was a German guy or two there I think, and two French guys.

I’m not just highlighting their background. We have all that and even more here in Canada. I’m rather highlighting the difference in the details of how they play in high level. That makes it just beautiful for me. Yes I get spanked around like a mf, but I’m also impressed when they do some things that are slick, even if it’s against me.

7. How coed / mixed games are defined

So here in TO, when we have mixed games, there’s this rule that you should have a least 2 of a gender every time in the field. So for example, if it’s 6v6 and you’re predominantly male, two of your players on the field should be women. You can’t just have two women and bench them. If say for example you only have 1 girl in your team, you’re out of luck and you’ll have to play 5v6. Get it?

It’s the same the other way around if it ever happens. If you’re a predominantly female team, there should be at least 2 men on the field. Same rules.

I think it’s great, I think it’s progressive. The one and only (but big problem) with this is that it’s so hard to find female players. Again this also has improved the past five years, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to have player shortages in some games/teams/leagues just because of this.

In Spain (at least), they definitely have a mixed gender games, a lot too actually. But they don’t have that rule/limit.

It’s nice too that in their environment, women are not deterred or intimidated by it. I’ve played games with there’s just 2 of them in a 6v6. The very least that the organizer’s gonna do is that he’ll even it out by placing one woman in each team. But that’s more an on-the-spot optional adjustment rather than a requirement/rule to participate in the game.

8. Lastly, there are just so many games available

For this one, it is especially evident in Spain.

Here in NA, it’s so hard to find games (but to be fair I think it has dramatically improved the past 5 years), but there–especially in Barcelona–omfg. There are games every day and every hour. Drop ins are available and it’s just back to back. They have all the varieties too:

  • 5v5 to 8v8
  • 10v10
  • mens only / coed
  • un/officiated
  • so many venues all of them top-tier

Games are well organized too. Goals are not those fucking makeshift tiny net goals they have at Lamport. Balls are provided. They even have chaleco/bibs provided all washed and cleaned you can smell the detergent.

It’s paid but it’s ~5-7EUR which is so worth it. Shower room’s are avail so you can prep after and go straight to your date or social event.

The more games available, the more you can play, which means the more and faster you progress.

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