Professional football, or soccer in the US, is without a doubt one of the most exciting sports in the world to watch.
While going down to watch a local non-league team can be fun, it does come down to what you like to get from sports. If your aim is to see large crowds, world-class athletes, unique tactics, and the best technical play, you go to your country’s professional leagues.
However, even that has quite a confusing understanding in many countries. Some nations have many professional leagues; others have none.
So, with that in mind, you might be asking ‘how many football leagues are there?‘ and ‘how many countries in the world have a fully professional league within their football pyramid?‘
We have taken a look at as many nations as we can within the FIFA list of approved nations, of which 211 are counted.
In total, 209 men’s leagues exist, but how many are actually fully professional? Let us take a look.
To make this easier, we will try to break it down by continent so that we can more easily understand where there is the biggest drop-off in terms of teams and professional leagues.
So, how many professional leagues exist in the world today?
What is a Professional Football League?
A professional football league is one in which all (or the vast majority) of adults involved are paid a full-time salary. It is their primary profession.
This means that you won’t find someone taking on another job to try to make ends meet; what we deem a ‘fully professional’ football league will be one in which those who play in it should be able to concentrate solely on being a football player.
Therefore, this also relates to things like professional contracts, facilities, and expenses being managed by clubs as opposed to players and support staff.
How Many Football Leagues in Europe Are Professional
As one might imagine, Europe is home to many professional football leagues.
In fact, the vast majority of countries in Europe will have a fully professional football league set up – at least at the top of the football pyramid. Most leagues in Europe will drop down to semi-professional after the second or third divisions.
England is quite unique in that it has four levels of professional football where every team should be a fully committed professional outfit. These are the English Premier League, Championship, League One, and League 2.
By contrast, smaller nations such as Scotland have leagues that are fully professional at the top-flight level, but then can be mixed afterward. For example, the Scottish Championship, the second tier of Scottish football, regularly has teams involved that are only semi-professional.
From our research, the only European nations that we could find that do not have a fully functioning professional league set-up within Europe are the smaller nations such as San Marino, Luxembourg, Gibraltar, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. Most other nations within the European continent will have its own professional football league operating at the time of writing.
Despite Europe being home to the ‘top 5’ leagues; England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, there are many leagues on the periphery that play a vital role in the development of young talent. A prime example of this is in Croatia, where Dani Olmo, who was raised in La Masia, decided to head to Dinamo Zagreb to get first-team football, only coming back a few years later, moving to RB Leipzig, with an even greater reputation.
A common theme that has been developing across Europe, and particularly in England, is that more and more young players are looking abroad for first-team football. We saw this with the likes of Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham moving to Borussia Dortmund, and Noni Madueke leaving Tottenham Hotspur to try his arm in the Eredivisie for PSV Eindhoven. This shows how interconnected the European leagues are, and they help form a healthy football ecosystem.
How Many Football Leagues in Asia Are Professional?
Asia has seen massive growth in the number of committed football leagues in the last decades, with many countries now taking part in adding their own fully professional leagues into the system.
Today, the most notable nations in Asia that have football leagues include Australia (at least by FIFA understanding), China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates as well as Vietnam.
While many might dispute the territorial placing of some leagues within the system, we focus on teams based on the form of the Asian Champions League that they take part in. The vast majority of leagues in the Middle East, then, will take part in the Asian Champions League. This can seem confusing to some, but it makes the most geographical sense with regard to where teams take part in the wider game.
How Many Football Leagues in Africa Are Professional
African football is growing all the time, but part of the challenge stems from stopping the best talent from leaving the country to move on to other nations and try their hand at the sport in other countries.
Many African talents do not grow up in the domestic leagues, instead moving to France and other nations where African players are often given a chance, such as Belgium and The Netherlands.
However, there is a small contingent of fully professional football leagues in the African football system.
Arguably the highest profile, though, would be the South African Premier Division. They also have a fully professional second tier, the National First Division. This means that African football has arguably the smallest number of professional leagues in the world at this moment in time.
In terms of major leagues, though, the Algerian top flight is one of the highest-rated and is a fully-rated professional football league.
Ghana, too, has a fully functioning Premier League, as does Egypt and Morocco. Nigeria, too, has a strong professional football league that is showing regular growth all the time.
The Tunisian top flight has often gained professional recognition, too.
Many other nations have semi-professional leagues which are on the way to full professionalism, though this is arguably still some distance away given the challenges in finding the funding needed for full professional football to kick in.
How Many South American Football Leagues Are Professional
South America has a proud history of being the ‘home’ of football outside of England, and it shows in their league set-ups.
Indeed, Argentina has three fully professional leagues, as does Brazil. Many of the state championships held in Brazil, too, are often fully professional by the make-up of the teams that take place. Both of these leagues have produced some incredible players over the years. Brazilian players such as Pele, Ronaldo Nazario, Kaio Jorge, and Garrincha. Alongside Argentinian players such as Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Maradona. Even Lionel Messi spent some of his youth at Newell’s Old Boys before moving to Barcelona.
Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile all have one national top flight which is fully professional.
Uruguay and Venezuela also have fully operational professional football leagues.
Indeed, the only South American nation not to have fully professional football leagues is Ecuador. As arguably the nation with the least interest in the sport, though, this might not come as a surprise to viewers of the South American domestic game.
How Many North America Football Leagues Are Professional
North American love of soccer is quite a confusing prospect, as they often have many sub-divisions and pyramids that almost seem to compete against one another. However, the rate of growth in modern American soccer leagues has seen many smaller nations take up their own professional leagues.
For example, today Canada has the Canadian Premier League, whilst it also has teams that take part in the Major League Soccer in the USA, as well as the United Soccer Leagues.
There is also a professional league to be found in Costa Rica, the Liga FPD. The Dominican Republic has a fully operational top flight that is professional, as does Honduras.
The United States has the MLS, one of the most popular leagues in the world, whilst Mexico has the Liga MX which is arguably among the best-attended leagues in world soccer.
How Many Women’s Football Leagues Are Professional
As a growing part of the football family, women’s football has shown an immense appetite for growth and development in the last decades. And it is easy to see why; there is more interest than ever before.
However, it is still a growing part of the football world as, at the time of writing, only five full-time professional leagues exist.
Fully professional Women’s football leagues can be found in England, Italy, Spain, Japan, and the United States.
The NWSL is the most well-respected female soccer league by far, bringing fans from across the world to see the best talent that the women’s game has to offer.
The rise of football in Germany and France, though, will likely see women’s leagues become fully professional, especially after the rise and growth of Olympique Lyonnais as the dominant club side in European women’s football.
With new soccer leagues starting all the time and countries increasingly becoming more enamored with the game, we should expect to see a pretty big rise in the number of professionals who watch the game develop and grow in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Make no mistake, though; professional football is here to stay and shows no signs of going anywhere.