Serie A, La Liga and the Premiership all voice strong claims to be the finest football league in the world today. However, which of these has the most genuine claim. The recognition of being the best is an honor that dictates not just bragging rights, but also the ability to draw the finest players and sponsorship contracts to secure the mantle yet further. There are countless factors to consider; the players the leagues have now, the trophies won by their clubs, the quality of football played and the stature of their various sides. Does that tactical catenaccio of the Italians outweigh the physical pressure of the Premiership? Would the top-heavy flair of La Liga continually overcome the strength of an English midfield? How do the Mediterranean cousins compare?
In comparing these various brands of ‘the beautiful game’ we must consider the many factors that make them great individually. The history, the present and the future are all crucial in contrasting these various brands of and eventually building a perception of whether one does stand above the others.
The first and often the most favored way of fans comparing championships, who has the best players? The natural assumption following this is that Spain hold the upper hand in this argument; especially given that both World (Ronaldinho) and European (Fabio Cannavaro) Players of Year play in La Liga. Also Spain can boast many other great talents; Madrid have van Nistelrooy, Raul, Robinho and Beckham, Barca can boast Ronaldinho, Deco, Messi, Eto’o and Zambrotta. Other clubs have similarly immense performers, David Villa and Joaquin Sanchez at Valencia, Riquelme at Villarreal to name but a few.
Italy can boast a similarly impressive list of galacticos, however, possibly due to the more pedestrian nature of Serie A the players have a tendency to be of a slightly more advanced age. Internazionale (or Inter) boast the most impressive roster; Crespo, Ibrahimovic, Veron, Stankovic, Figo and Samuel all ply there trade for the Nerazzurri. Their city rivals Milan also have a cornucopia of stars; despite losing their talisman Andriy Shevchenko to Chelsea in the summer, they have one world beater in Riccy Kaka’. Also players as renowned as Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta and Alberto Gilardino front a cast that contains talent enough to challenge for any trophy. Also worth mentioning is that the Milan rear-guard still contains the legendary Paulo Maldini as captain. With the shadow of Calciopoli hanging over the Italian top flight, what should be mentioned is the exodus from Serie A that occurred over the summer saw many of their finest individuals leave the division.
Zambrotta and Thuram left Juventus for Barcelona, likewise Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson joined their Bianconieri coach Fabio Capello in Madrid, and former Serie A favourites like Alessandro del Piero, Gigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet have all decided to stay loyal to the old lady and ply their trade in Serie B for a season. As mentioned, Shevchenko also left the Rossoneri for Chelsea.
Whilst discussing Chelsea we must clearly outline that they are the major player in European football today. The premise that currently exists in football is that, when it comes to the transfer market, the Premiership champions are the team that all others must follow. Due to the seemingly unlimited funds stumped up by their Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have amassed a team of stars to match any other club in the world. With Terry and Lampard already present prior to the Russian benefactor’s input, players like Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Joe Cole and, as discussed, Shevchenko. The Premiership can also boast some of the world’s finest players in Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal; Rooney, Rio and Ronaldo at Manchester United and Liverpool’s talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard.
The important thing to outline when comparing the undoubtedly huge talents on show in these various leagues is that although we are examining them from the perspective of now, the future is also a vital factor. As we discussed Serie A does tend to boast more seasoned galacticos whereas the Premiership can argue that, in Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas, they have some of the most promising talent. Spanish football could also argue that their spread is encompasses youth, with youngsters such as Sergio Aguero and Fernando ‘el Nino’ Torres at Atletico, Lionel Messi at Barca and one name to watch in Matias Fernandez, a Chilean playmaker due to join Villarreal in January.
Football in the Twenty First Century is far more than the game it was in previous decades. It is now a business, and one of the world’s biggest at that. Transfer prices are now such that it appears any ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ is worth £15 million. Player’s wages have also experienced astronomical rises. This is to the extent that £3 million per year is not considered to be a completely outrageous wage for a top international player. With the costs to clubs continually rising, somebody is required to fulfill these extravagant fiscal demands.
Sponsorship, television rights and marketing revenue are now utilized by top clubs that are now selling a ‘brand’ rather than a sport. From product association to shirts emblazoned with trade names, the marketing aspect of major clubs and leagues is paramount to the strength therein.
Annually an accountancy firm called Deloitte release details of top European club’s financial incomes over the previous season. Essentially a ‘rich-list’ of sides, comparing their viability and market strength in today’s football world. The most recent edition of this list is from the 2005 season and the zenith of the list is almost totally dominated by our ‘big three leagues’.
The 2005 rankings dictate that the world’s market leader in football terms is now Real Madrid. The previous years had been dominated by the Manchester United marketing machine; however the Castilian club took the mantle from their English rivals. Much of this change in fortunes has been put down to the ‘David Beckham factor’.
Former England skipper David Beckham is as famous for his private life as he is for his football. Married to a ‘Spice-Girl’, the midfielder looks more like a pop star than a footballer, sporting numerous tattoos, continually outrageous hair styles and a multiplicity of product endorsement contracts. Described as being the ‘most photographed sportsman ever’, Beckham is worth his weight in Euros to his club side. The fact that Manchester United, who previously topped the rich-list, were dethroned by Beckham’s new club Real Madrid is regarded as proof of the man’s value from a marketing perspective. However, it is worth mentioning that Madrid’s on-field performances have declined while their finances improved, and a more recent list may also hint at Beckham’s own on-pitch decline as a force in world football.
The top ten teams in the list are, with the exception of Bavarian giants Bayern Munich, all from Spain, Italy or England. The majority is dominated by the Premiership as we see Manchester United (2nd), Chelsea (5th), Liverpool (8th) and Arsenal (10th), this is followed by three Serie A clubs in Milan (3rd), Juventus (4th) and Inter (9th) and Spain’s La Liga only has two top ten entries, despite Real topping the list being followed by rivals Barcelona in 6th. In viewing these figures, we must firstly emphasise that they are not as up to date as we would like, also should a more recent list be compiled we would surely see the effect of Calciopoli on the Italian sides.
The extent to which a league entertains depends vastly upon how you like your football. The three brands all vary in their traits greatly and taste is a vital factor within this, after all, one man’s pineapple is another man’s poison. Main differences in these leagues are inherent of the style of football played in each respective country. Although on the surface this may seem obvious, but when we consider the extent to which domestic football has become incredibly multicultural, it is positive that these leagues maintain their own identity despite this.
The brand of football played in the leagues differs greatly. As mentioned earlier, the Italian game is one based around technique, control of possession and patience. The cattenaccio of today’s Italian game is not as negative as that of sides during the mid-twentieth century, wherein five defenders would be used to enforce a stringent man marking system with a ‘libero’ slotting in behind as a ball-playing sweeper. Unfortunately the system in its original state is now outdated, given that both the zonal marking system has almost uniformly become the status quo of the modern game and that sweepers are now very scarcely employed. However, the football played in Serie A today is one that echoes this system.
Calcio is often regarded by those in Northern Europe as being dull, but those closer to the Mediterranean as being a purists game that encapsulates a higher standard of football than any other. Football in Italy has been likened to a game of chess, with a more systematic approach than that of other countries. Defenders are often as gifted in possession as any other position, a trait not found elsewhere in football. The style football played uses lots of short passes designed to open pockets of space, rather than longer balls targeting taller forwards. The game requires a very high level of technical ability, with the art of controlling and passing paramount.
Detractors of the Italian game often point its lack of pace and time-consuming attacking play as its flaws. Goals are notoriously hard to come by, a fact further embellished by examining Luca Toni’s impressive thirty-one goal season last year, the first player to score over thirty goals in Serie A for forty eight years. As such many prefer the hustle and bustle of leagues like the Premiership.
The Premiership is a very fast and furious division; emphasis on strength, pace and drive. This is not withstanding the fact that a very high standard of football can be seen in England’s top flight, however by and large the game is dictated in a very physically demanding manner. English football was much maligned in the eighties and nineties for a predominance of ‘long ball’ football. The theory being that long, direct passes into forward areas would create chances for purposefully employed big, physical strikers. This style was often considered to not be graceful and was lambasted by critics. Despite the fact that the English league has developed since, similarly to the catenaccio roots of Serie A, this style still exists to some extent today; even league champions Chelsea have been criticised for employing such a style. Despite not being as higher level of technical level, the Premiership is often billed as being ‘the most exciting league in the world’ due to its non-stop action-packed intensity.
In contrast La Liga has a style of its own entirely. Borrowing much from a South American ethic of flair football, the Spanish league is famed for its fast, flowing attacking brand of play. Spain’s Primera Division has won many admirers over recent years, firstly thanks to the Zidane inspired galacticos of Madrid and more recently the exploits of Ronaldinho Gaucho for Barcelona. The emphasis in Spain, more than any other in Europe, is on attacking play. Formations are based around ball playing midfielders and skilful wingers. This does produce a very open brand of football; however this does often expose defensive frailties. With the occasional exception (Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol) Spanish defenders are not generally as strong as their counterparts in farther reaches of the game. This combined with the ability of attackers does make La Liga very enticing from a spectator point of view.
Not withstanding the stereotypes that we have examined, there are clear exceptions to every rule, and this instance no different. Despite being usually solid and defence-orientated, Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan have been praised for their attacking football in Serie A. Also, and potentially the finest example of this, there is Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s men continually produce some of the most free flowing football in world football today. However, for obvious reasons, the North London outfit could be reasoned to be the exception to the rule as they have a side almost totally dominated by foreign players. To the extent that, since the departures of Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, it is unlikely that an Englishman will, should the Gunners be at full strength, feature at all.
What makes a league exciting is often based around not only the vastness of the occasion or the protagonists involved, but the closeness of the competitors. In all leagues, as with walks of life, there are historically bigger sides with larger financial acumen, but where there is no competition, there is no spectacle.
The Premiership has been dominated by the wealth of Chelsea over the past two seasons, not withstanding the fact that it takes more than just money to dominate a league (although it helps) and it is a credit to both players and coaching staff that they have taken the past two successive titles with consummate ease. This season, however is painting a different picture. The wily old Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is now producing the results that his talented array of stars are capable of, and at this point in time stand a commendable eight points clear of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Beyond the top two, we see something that has been apparent for some time in the Premiership. The gap between the top teams and the chasing pack could be justifiably described as chasm-like. Previously there was a top four that added Liverpool and Arsenal to the current table-topping rivals, but unfortunately for the neutral this gap has extended to these clubs as well. However, this does create what can be seen as almost a ‘second league’ in which clubs behind Manchester United and Chelsea vie for the remaining to places in Europe’s prestigious Champions League.
This chasing pack includes both Liverpool and Arsenal, followed in strength of squad by Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur but effectively any other side that can put together a good run of results can infiltrate the group, as was the case with last season’s surprise package of Wigan Athletic, who almost secured a UEFA Cup berth despite being touted as relegation favorites before the season began.
Spain can also look to the domination of one club over the past two seasons as being the main debating topic. Barcelona’s back-to-back titles have not, however, received anything like the treatment that Chelsea’s similar achievements have. Whilst the ‘boo-boys’ have been out in force ‘pooh-poohing’ the wealth, attitude and style (or lack thereof) the Premiership’s title holders, Barcelona’s success has been lauded as a ‘victory for style over adversity’. From many purists’ perspectives, the brand of flowing football that Barca exhibit is very pleasing on the eye and the fact that Los Cules are considered footballing royalty, rather than the nouveau riche of Mourinho’s men, could be a factor.
The Primera Liga at present still see’s the Catalonian giants on top, a mini-renaissance from their bitter rivals Real Madrid has been temporarily halted as the surprise package of Sevilla look to ‘upset the apple cart’. Traditional bridesmaids Valencia appear to have moved back to a position more akin to an usher as Atletico Madrid and Zaragoza enjoy good form. Unlike the Premiership, La Liga does not usually purvey the gulf between the top sides and their competitors. Such is the nature of Spanish football, that although unexpected, the top teams are more often beaten by their less illustrious competitors.
In the Italian top flight, again the competitiveness is affected by the match fixing scandal. From the season’s opening, it seemed that it would be a two horse race. In previous seasons this has been the case, with Juventus battling Milan for lo scudetto. However, with Milan docked points and Juventus having to cope with life in Serie B, it has left Roma and Inter to battle for the title. Inter, the perennial underachievers of calico, have amassed one of the world’s strongest squads and as such currently stand a clear distance ahead of their rivals. Nine consecutive wins for the nerazzurri (an Italian record) sees Mancini’s men looking down the barrel of their first actual title (they were handed the 2006 title by default of being the highest placed side guilty of no wrongdoing in the Calciopoli scandal) in over ten years.
Upon first attempting to tackle this question, I can honestly state that I did not conceive quite what I was undertaking. All three leagues are packed with all things that make football the worlds biggest, and in my opinion best, sport. Rather than scrutinized with a cynical eye, we should really be embracing these bastions of passion, flair and ability, rejoicing in the pleasure that millions of fans get from these three small collections of twenty teams. However, I set out on a journey, a journey that took longer than anticipated, but a journey all the same to root out which I believed to be the best.
If that assessment leaves all of the leagues attributes equal then the next separates. Money and marketing are bigger in the Premier League than in any other non-American sport and the financial credence there eclipses anything that Spain or Italy can boast. However, the argument in this instance must remain, how important (bragging rights aside) is the money? Which leads us to question, is money not potentially the ultimate undoing of these leagues? Using Italy as a prime example, the great football broadcaster James Richardson cites this as the reason for Serie A’s downturn in fortunes; he believes that money that was spent around the turn of the century was effectively ‘promised’ funds for projected future television rights that sadly never materialized. However, in the Premiership, the money just keeps rolling in.
Finally we draw to the final issue of competitiveness and with Calciopoli forcing Serie A to dismount its jockey leaving a two horse race. In this issue I am setting my stall out early and backing the Premiership. With no disrespect to Real Madrid, but I cannot see Barcelona being usurped this season. From watching football for many years now, you learn to know when a resurgence is threatening, and Madrid’s is not that. Manchester United however is the English top flight, for the first time in a while, looks as though it will draw to a truly nail-biting conclusion.
Overall, as I have mentioned throughout, it is with regret that I concede that Italy, given all of their difficulties, cannot compete. This upsets me, as it was Serie A where I gained much of my development as a football supporter, spending years enjoying the delights of the Mediterranean game, watching exotically monikered players with equally glamorous abilities. It is true that the average Italian top flight footballer is of higher fundamental ability than his English counterpart, but the stigma of scandal is too apparent in the current Serie A climate for them to be considered. It is my hope that we see a renaissance in Italian football and that over the coming decade we see a nation rejuvenated and again rivaling their Spanish and English counterparts.
So it comes to the final two, and in truth it could not be tighter. However, it is the Premiership which I believe to be the best. It is by the width of a flee’s reproductive organs, but the Premiership has the lot. It has, in my opinion, the most exciting crop of young players, the most competitive title chase and the best supporters. It has the biggest worldwide audiences and is (marginally) the strongest nation in the worldwide transfer market. This is not to detract from La Liga, a league of endless attacking improvisation, flair and adventure, a league that has history, has impossibly gifted players, has Ronaldinho, but its flaws are too clear. The hapless defending is one such example of this and too bigger issue to be ignored.
For me, the Premiership has only recently secured the mantle it has sought since its creation. For the Baggios, van Bastens, Papins, Maldinis, Batistutas and friends in Nineties Serie A to the Zizous, Figos, Rivaldos, Ronaldos, Rauls et al of Noughties La Liga, there has always been something to separate English Football from the top of the tree, however now it is clear that the FA Premier League is THE major force in world football today and given the money and following dedicated to retaining that mantle, I foresee that this will be the case for years to come.