European Cup tallies and spending power have always been the framework for defining which European football league stands above the rest. Our sports writers individually debate their case for the top European League and specify their respective merits.
English Premier League
Competition for a Champions League spot in the Premiership is more intense than any other league in Europe. Every year, La Liga is just another dog fight between Barcelona and Real Madrid while Serie A has been more like a runaway freight train than a league, with Inter Milan winning the past five titles.
The Premiership has had different clubs competing every year. Chelsea and Manchester United consistently challenge for the top spot, while Arsenal and Liverpool have made exciting title races in recent seasons.
However, this season is demonstrating that the Premiership’s ‘Big Four’ are not what they once were. United’s 2010/11 squad is less than impressive, while an ever aging Chelsea side look vulnerable after a strong start to the season. Arsenal are as inconsistent as the offside rule, and the less written about Liverpool’s start to the season the better. The wealth of talent has finally spread.
Manchester City now bolster a side bursting with quality, Tottenham are finally fulfilling their potential after years of mediocrity – their place in the last 16 of the Champions League is well deserved.
There can be no doubt that the Premiership has a hierarchy, but competition is growing. Four Champions League places are there, but it’s anyone’s guess who will occupy them, maybe even this year’s surprise package Bolton.
The leagues physicality gives it a biting edge that other leagues can’t match. Diego Forlan is one of La Liga’s best goal-scorers, but couldn’t take the hits the Premiership had to offer. The aggressive nature of English clubs has hindered them in European competitions though, as European referees often harshly penalize them. Despite this, there have been eleven English European Cup winners, just one short of Italy and Spain, which demonstrates the quality of the Premiership.
Tight competition, rising stars and physicality – not to mention the diversity of the league (with 66 nations represented at present) – combine to make the Premiership the best league in the world.
The German Bundesliga is never discussed in the same way as the Premier League of England or Spain’s La Liga. The Bundesliga doesn’t have the same allure as the other leagues on the continent.
What the Bundesliga can be proud of is that their clubs can still compete at the highest level without incurring massive debts. Throughout Europe, clubs are riddled with debt. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have been saddled with huge debts since being bought in the past decade.
Manchester City are spending colossal amounts of money that they simply don’t have and the same can be said about Real Madrid to fund their second Galactico experiment. There were fears earlier this year that Barcelona, one of the best clubs in the world, might be unable to sustain their current financial state. It’s worrying that the clubs that dominate the Champions League year after year can only do so by operating in the red.
It was refreshing to see Bayern Munich make the final of Europe’s premier club competition last season. Bayern, along with most clubs in Germany, are part owned by their supporters and have minimal, if any, debt. The Bundesliga had the highest average attendance last season in Europe.
If any club has debt, it is usually stadium debt that will be paid off within the next decade. Along with this, their youth structure is second to none, and was clear for everyone to see at last summer’s World Cup where Germany advanced to the semi-finals with the help of a host of bright young prospects.
Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern President, stated that Manchester United – pre-Glazer family takeover- were the club Bayern tried to emulate. With world-class players such as Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger at their disposal, Bayern look set to lead a German domination of European football for years to come.
Once the elite league in European football, the Italian Serie A is experiencing somewhat of a fall from grace in recent times. Despite Inter Milan’s success in last season’s Champions League, the top flight of Italian football has been struck by crippling football hooliganism and simply fallen behind the big-spending super-clubs of Spain and England.
Last season saw Jose Mourinho lead Internazionale to an unprecedented treble – winning the League title, Coppa Italia and the Champions League. However, this wonderful achievement was far from a demonstration of Italy’s return to its past glory. This dominance served as an example of the weaknesses in the Italian domestic scene.
Inter Milan have now won the last five league titles with relative ease. Their main opposition comes in the form of traditional big-hitters Juventus and Roma, and of course local rivals A.C. Milan, but this opposition is far from competitive when it comes to title ambition. These former giants of the game are reliant on players who are becoming noticeably too old to compete.
Milan has a particularly old squad. With veterans such as Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta still forming the core of their first-team, the Rossoneri are hardly planning for the future. In a way Milan encapsulate the problems of Italian football, as they simply continue deteriorate.
The source of this degeneration of Serie A is rooted in its fans. The last decade has seen a rapid increase of football hooliganism in Italian football. This culture of rioting and petty attacks has even led to the deaths of innocent fans and football officials.
The 2006/07 season was particularly grim. Constant fighting caused the Italian Football Federation to threaten the halt of league football, before eventually suspending all league fixtures after a policeman was killed while on duty at a Serie A match. This wave of ruthless violence has caused attendances at league matches to plummet and severely damaged the income and progress of Italy’s clubs.
Internazionale’s poor form this season under new manager Rafael Benitez is a clear representation that without Portugal’s Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan are simply another struggling Italian club.
When you think of La Liga, you no doubt think of the glamour of both the play on the pitch and the off-field antics of the clubs. You picture the perfectly fluid football of Barcelona or the ‘Galácticos’ of Real Madrid. Even outside of the big two, La Liga boasts a wealth of talent in the form of teams such as Sevilla and Atlético Madrid.
Los Culés are arguably the greatest team on earth right now. With players like Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernández it is no wonder why they are so feared. Barcelona’s slogan ‘Més que un club’, meaning: ‘more than a club’, exemplifies the passion within this exceptional club.
Madrid’s reputation has taken a bit of a knock in recent years with Barcelona’s superior style of play and the collapse of the first Galácticos, yet they are still the most successful club in the history of Europe. With 31 La Liga titles and nine European Cup/Champions League victories, Los Blancos remain the most successful and illustrious club in the world.
Their current crop of players would make any manger envious. Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká are just some of the weapons available to José Mourinho. With some of the best players in the world and possibly the best manager in the game, it would appear only a matter of time before Madrid becomes the first club to enter double-digits in European Cup titles.
Maybe domination is concentrated too greatly on the top two, but there is still some exceptional talent to be found in the other 18 challengers. Diego Forlán, Fernando Llorente and Sergio Aguero are tremendously exciting players to watch and proven match winners. For the most part, however, Spanish football is all about El Classico and undoubtedly boasts the most flair in European football.
– Kevin Beirne