This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Is the English Premier League the premier competition in the world? It might have the biggest following but does it have the best teams, players and the most spirited competition? There are plenty of competitions on the European mainland that would argue the negative case and none would have a better case than the world champions, the Spanish.
The English Premier League generates more money and interest around the world than any other national club-based competition. It is broadcast in 211 countries and supplied more players to the World Cup in South Africa than any other league. There is little doubt that it is the biggest but can it still lay claim to being the best domestic league in world football?
The Bundesliga in Germany attracts the biggest live audience with fans flocking in record numbers to its game. The Seria A in Italy boasts Inter Milan who currently hold the Champions League trophy. Football is also in the Italian’s blood and their competition has a rich tradition that makes many other leagues jealous. The biggest challenger, however, would be the Spanish. Spain won the World Cup with a team dominated by players who ply their trade in their local competition, La Liga. They also have the most expensive footballer in the world, Christiano Ronaldo who surprisingly chose to play in Spain for Real Madrid rather than Manchester United. This was also a stance taken by England’s David Beckham and Brazilians Ronaldo and Ronaldihno in recent years.
Competitiveness is a huge factor when considering which is the most superior competition. How often would you bet against Bayern Munich winning the German League? The German League has one great team and a host of average teams which puts it a long way behind all the other major contenders. The Seria A has three teams with AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan sure to dominate. Even on a poor day these teams usually far outstrip their lowly opponents. AS Roma was competitive not that long ago but things have gone horribly wrong for the team that carries the famous city’s name. Corruption, violence and inconsistency have also rocked Italian football in recent times and the Champions League appears to be the major focus when you discuss Italian football these days.
The Spanish also have their problems when you talk about their depth as La Liga has become a guaranteed two-horse-race between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Teams like Valencia and Atletico Madrid have struggled to keep pace with their biggest rivals, which boast teams full of superstars and seem to have endless cheque books when securing the best players in the world. The Spanish are now clearly the best international football team but their competition is in real danger of becoming nothing more than a yearly derby between Real and Barcelona. They could learn a lot from the Scottish competition, its international status has plummeted as a result of the annual duel between Rangers and Celtic, the only competitive teams in the competition.
The last decade saw the emergence of the ‘Big Four’ in the EPL: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Many argue that these do not represent enough competitive clubs but at least there has always been strong competition between the four for the Premiership title. These clubs not only showed their ability at home but have all been major competitors in the Champions League which further boosted their international status. More importantly, given a good day and a little luck even the bottom teams have always been capable of beating the big boys. How often have we heard EPL managers say, “There are no easy games in the Premier League”? This is true and you could argue it is getting tougher every year for the large clubs to hold their total domination.
There are a few other contenders in the EPL starting to seriously emerge as threats, which adds to the strength of the competition. Manchester City recently went on a campaign of pillaging Europe and signed a team that can compete at any level. Tottenham are also showing that they can compete against Europe’s best in the Champions League and teams like Everton, Aston Villa and even Newcastle all boast management and playing lists that could threaten in the next few years.
You could argue that the local stars of the EPL are reaching the end of their glory days as Scholes, Giggs, Gerrard, Lampard and even Terry have played their best football already. Home grown emerging stars like Rooney are struggling to handle the pressure of EPL football. The Spanish are producing a seemingly endless supply of superb young players while the other competitions are simply signing cheques for low lying fruit in countries such as Holland, Argentina and Brazil. These countries can’t compete with the big dollars on offer from the likes of England, Italy and Germany.
So how do the leagues compare when the teams meet on the pitch? Real Madrid has the most victories and semi-final appearances in the European competition but in the last seven years they haven’t passed the quarter-finals. Bayern played in the final in 2010 for the first time since 2001, losing to Inter Milan who was there for the first time in nearly 40 years under the guidance of ‘The Special One’ Jose Mourinho. In the six years since 2005, Italy boasts wins for AC Milan in 2007 and Inter Milan in 2010, but Barcelona has won twice for Spain in 2006 and 2009. The EPL also comes in with two wins, Liverpool in 2005 and Manchester United in 2008. While England, Spain and Italy all share two wins apiece, the English appear with much more regularity at the semi-final stage.
So back to the million-dollar question: ‘which is the best football league in the world?’ The Germans are clinically good but have no depth. The Italians at their best are irresistible but they have so many problems that they are falling behind. The Spanish have the World Cup and the best depth on an international level but their competition is hurting under the dominance of two world powerhouses. The English League has a competition that is getting closer with the middle teams slowly inching their way toward the Big Four. This is something the other leagues can be very jealous of. They also have huge support outside England, which counts for a lot given football’s status as ‘the world game’.
For all of these reasons I have to conclude the EPL is the strongest competition, but with a rider that the Spanish are the sleeping giants. If the next few years see the world champions produce more than a couple of strong teams in their local competition, the landscape could well change dramatically.