What’s the best football league in the world? The question has obsessed critics and fans of the sport alike for many decades now.
For much of the 1990s, most agreed that Serie A was the domain in which the majority of the most skilful footballers in the world plied their trade. In the 2000s, La Liga rose to prominence as Italian Football was hampered by a lack of investment, coupled with failing attendances and the odd disgraceful match-fixing scandal.
The Premier League has also sporadically been perceived as the best in the world over the course of recent times, with such claims naturally reaching their apex the year that Chelsea and Manchester United contested the Champions League final. And most recently, the German league has been labelled as superior to its European counterparts, largely due to the presence of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in last year’s final.
Clearly, many of these arguments are simplistic, reactionary and ill-informed — some of those suggesting that the top players currently preside in Germany would have been hard pressed to name a footballer operating in that division outside of the well-known names at Bayern and Dortmund. Nevertheless, in defence of those who may have issued the odd ill-advised opinion, definitively stating that one league is better than the rest is problematic for a number of reasons.
Firstly, football is constantly evolving to a dramatic extent. Just over five years ago, neither Man City nor PSG were the mega-rich superpowers they are today. In that time span, clubs such as Malaga and Anzhi have also gone from rags to riches and back again.
In an interview with TheScore.ie published on the site yesterday, Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe describes how Real Madrid and Barcelona now face the same problem that has long been said to have afflicted Rangers (before their relegation at least) and Celtic. There is so little competitiveness in La Liga that they now struggle to raise their performance on the odd occasions (i.e. Champions League semi-finals) when it is necessary to do so.
Surely, therefore, the Spanish league cannot be legitimately described as the best in the world. And what of the Bundesliga? Munich, Dortmund and arguably Bayer Leverkusen are all conceivably top European sides. Yet there is a big gap in the table below them, which also ostensibly highlights a drop in quality. Schalke, after all, were comfortably beaten 3-0 at home by Chelsea last Tuesday.
As for Serie A — the Italian sides have been equally unconvincing this year, enhancing suspicions that the league, which hasn’t produced a Champions League finalist since Inter in 2010, is a shadow of its former more illustrious self.
There are some, though, who claim that Ligue 1 is the emerging superpower, with both Monaco and PSG spending lavishly in recent times. Nevertheless, Marseille have still failed to win a single point thus far in the Champions League. Therefore, again, widespread talent seems exclusive to two or three teams in France.
Consequently, almost by default, it could legitimately be argued that the Premier League is the best in the world. Currently, three of its four European representatives sit top of their groups in the Champions League, while Man City are also now strong favourites to qualify too, having beaten CSKA Moscow 2-1 away from home during the week. Even in the Europa League, until last Thursday, both Tottenham and Swansea held 100% records, while a Championship side, Wigan, are incredibly still unbeaten.
(Cristiano Ronaldo, believed to be the world’s most expensive player until Gareth Bale’s recent transfer to Madrid, celebrates scoring in the Champions League during the week — Andres Kudacki/AP/Press Association Images)
On the other hand, while the Premier League is arguably strongest in terms of depth, it is also telling that the English side the bookmakers deem most likely to prevail at Europe’s highest level this year — Chelsea — are just fifth favourites to do so behind Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Furthermore, only the most optimistic Chelsea, United, City or Arsenal fan would be confident of their club’s success abroad this year. Even the league’s highest-placed team, Arsenal, were unable to avoid defeat to Dortmund at home during the week.
So while it may be fair to suggest that Germany currently has the best team in the world in Bayern Munich, and the Premier League is the most superior domestic competition when it comes to depth, calling any league ‘the best’ has appeared increasingly irrelevant of late. The wider and more important issue is the lack of talent that seems to exist throughout Europe. Each of the top leagues possesses three or four great sides at best. And consequently, there is no league in which mediocrity is not prevalent, nor does the merest hint of footballing equality exist anywhere.
Moreover, talk surrounding a European Super League has grown more voluble in recent times. Most commentators and fans are at best apprehensive about this idea and at worst, contemptuous of it. Yet owing to the influx of money in the game, the lack of competitiveness domestically is more apparent than it’s ever been.
Prior to the Bosman ruling, clubs such as Nottingham Forest or Derby could become European champions by focusing their resources on developing young talent, safe in the knowledge that player power did not really exist and that the best players would be retained at all costs. In the space of a few years, Leeds could swiftly turn from being lower-league no-hopers to champions of England.
In contrast, nowadays, barring a Manchester City-esque injection of millions of euro into one of their rivals, it seems inconceivable that any side other than Barcelona or Real Madrid will win La Liga. Similarly, since the Premier League’s inception, the champions have statistically almost always been the side willing to spend the most on player wages. And even though the Bundesliga is heralded for adopting policies to ensure that national players figure prominently, Munich won the treble last year, and are unbeaten this season, so it can be hardly be regarded as the exception to this rule.
Hence, football’s uneven distribution of wealth, despite UEFA’s vague aspirations towards ‘financial fair play,’ is now greater than ever; and there are no obvious signs of this trend reversing anytime soon. Accordingly, while a European Super League may not be happening in practice yet, in effect, it’s already a reality, so overwhelming is the dominance of a minority of clubs.