Best of the Best
Best of the Best
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 honour 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.
In 1993 English football saw its most spectacular re-branding. Essentially nothing changed apart from ‘Division 1 of the Football League’ became the FA Premier League. However, whilst the format was the same, major investment meant that the cold terraces of Carrow Road became suddenly more glamorous as Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB (now known as ‘Sky Digital’) poured millions into taking English football from the darkness of the 1980s, towards a new millennium that saw the birth of the ‘celebrity’ footballer and his WAG.
So resplendent has been Sky’s influence that, in a relatively short space of time, England has caught their continental rivals. The 1980s were dark days for the pioneers of association football. Disasters domestically at Hillsborough and in Europe at the Heysel stadium saw English teams banned from European club competitions. The exile allowed their rivals to grow. At this time, Europe was much less dominated by the three major nations we see leading the way today. Olymipique Marseilles and Paris Saint Germain of France where considered dangerous, as were the heavyweights of the Bundesliga in Germany and Eastern Europe, still largely behind a curtain of communism, could never be ruled out when the major honours were handed out. So, whilst Liverpool and their Mersey side rivals Everton dominated domestically, it was by more than the width of the Channel by which the English top flight was divided from its European rivals.
However, the ban was lifted and top flight English clubs, led by Manchester United’s European Cup Winner’s Cup triumph in 1991 over Barcelona, steadily returned to compete for the biggest prizes in club football. The extra revenue from Sky and the increased sponsorship attentions of a Britain going into a financial ‘boom’ following the late 80s recession that saw millions out of work meant that clubs had more money to compete with European rivals that had for some time been throwing transfer millions around with abandon. This saw an influx of foreign talent the like of which English fans had not seen previously. The effect of this migration clearly improved the overall level of the game in the Premier League without, in the main, taking away the essence of the English game.
Without being overly critical of the English league, there is one factor upon which they cannot challenge their rivals. Technique is a more sought after trait in Europe than it is in the British Isles. Players grow up in Europe learning what is known as ‘the basics’ to a much more intensive level, whereas in Britain the philosophy of sheer determination and stamina would be more apparent. That is not withstanding the range of superb, technically gifted players that have descended from England. David Beckham, as a case in point, is a midfielder who could be considered a pioneer in the art of both crossing a moving ball and striking one that is still. His achievements during his time at Manchester United include countless assists, punctuated with some stunning goals from free-kicks, and plenty of silverware, including of course, the Champions League victory of 1999, the first by an English club for over fifteen years.
Overall, despite the fact that overall technique levels are arguably lower in England than on the continent, the passion cannot be questioned. Also, the huge amount of money invested in the English top flight has seen a wealth of talent ply their trade in the Premiership. Although the massive influx of continental signings coming to England did begin with players possibly ‘winding down’ their illustrious careers (such as Gullit, Desailly and Ravenelli), more recently, and largely due to the billions invested in Chelsea by Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovic more players have joined the Premiership when at the height of their powers. The first of these can most favourably be seen as being Juan Sebastian Veron, the Argentinean playmaker signed from Lazio by Manchester United in 2000. Although Veron was not the biggest success in England, he opened the door to more mega-stars of football following in the shiny headed midfielder’s footsteps.
Over recent years name such as Didier Drogba, Xabi Alonso, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko have snubbed offers from warmer climes to compete for the FA Premier League crown. One of the catalysts for this influx of talent could be seen to be Arsenal FC. Since Arsene Wenger took control of ‘the Gunners’ in 1997, a small enclave of (mostly French) foreigners have enjoyed much success from their adopted home in North London. Manu Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and the jewel in the crown, Thierry Henry have all changed people’s attitude towards ‘the Gunners’ from the old ‘boring, boring’ adage to being one of the world’s most exciting free-flowing passing sides.
Firstly, Spanish football would not be the force it is without its two major powers; Barcelona of Catalonia and Real Madrid of Castile. These two pillars of the Iberian Peninsula have stood as two of the biggest clubs in the world for many years. The fierce rivals both contain squads of players of such high profiles they are known simply as Galacticos. Although Real may boast the slightly larger trophy room, Barca have the larger stadium. Both are considered to be more than football clubs. They serve to represent the ideals of their public. Real are the club of the king, the club of the capital and stand for ruling classes that control the (much divided) country from their seats in Madrid. Barcelona however, represents rebellion of independence from the nobility of the capital. In Barcelona they do not consider themselves to be Spanish, they are Catalonian. They have their own language and own parliament and the people still seethe from the constraints placed upon these icons of liberty by the former Spanish head of state, Franco. Indeed, even today, less-salubrious areas of Barcelona bear anti-Franco murals and graffiti.
On the football pitch, while Barcelona currently dominate affairs, it is not long since Real were regarded to be the finest club in the world (an accolade that is generally bestowed upon Barca at the moment). Winning European football’s ultimate prize three times (in 1998, 2000 and 2002) over a short period of time did much to embellish this reputation, as did the remarkable statement of intent from then Real president Florentine Perez to annually purchase a highly regarded world player (or Galactico) whilst nurturing young local players. This idea dubbed in Spain ‘Zidanes y Pavones’, as in the team would be an amalgamation of megastars like Zinedine Zidane and locally sourced players such as Francisco Pavon. For a time this made the Bernabeu club an all-conquering footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball side, famous for winning games through flicks, tricks and style.
Unfortunately for Madrid, this did not last. The Castilians fell behind a re-invigorated Barcelona under the leadership of Dutch coach, Frank Rijkaard and there was increasing talk of problems behind the scenes with dissention from leading players, especially with regards to the ‘conveyer belt’ of coaches that were employed by the club. In 2001, despite winning La Liga for the second successive year, then manager Vicente del Bosque was relieved of his position by President Perez (rumours at the time appear to dictate that it was a group of players headed by talisman and captain Raul Gonzalez that initiated del Bosque’s departure). His replacement was the Manchester United assistant coach Carlos Quieroz. After an unsuccessful season in which Real lost the Coppa del Rey (King’s cup) final and in turn were knocked out of the Champions League and slumped to an unforgivable second place in La Liga. Quieroz was replaced by the similarly ineffectual Jose Camacho who in tern was followed by the similarly short lived tenures of Wanderley Luxemburgo and Ramon Lopez Caro. Not until this season did Real Madrid appoint a manager, in the Italian supremo Fabio Capello, who seems to have gained the backing of the board, the players and the partisan Madridistas (fans).
Apart from the obvious Classicos of Spanish football, we should not ignore the importance of the country’s supporting cast. Valencia have continually been regarded as Spain’s third club. With their magnificent Estadio Mestalla stadium, Los Ches in recent years have claimed two La Liga titles, one UEFA Cup and have featured in two Champions League finals. Players such as Gaizka Mendieta, Santi Canizares and David Villa have made Valencia the continued force that they have been in making it widely regarded in that there are three major clubs in Spain.
Europe’s most successful footballing nation was, throughout the nineties, the home of the finest club sides in the world. Lead by first the all conquering AC Milan side containing the Dutch trio of van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, duely followed by Baggio’s Juventus before the baton was handed to his successor Alessandro del Piero. Throughout the decade, Serie A boasted the world’s best players; from both Italy and overseas, calcio ruled world football.
Despite the talent of the players, vastness of the arenas and wealth of the clubs, Northern European criticshave often deemed the Italian game to be boring and insinuated that it lacks the relentless nature of the English game. To back this up, the phrase catenaccio was created to describe the slow and precise tactical and technique based mode of attack that has typified the Italian approach. The philosophy dictates that the ball is held in defence, drawing the opposition in and subsequently creating gaps for a well placed pass to produce openings. The main criticisms of this tactic are that it does not promote free flowing attacking football and it can prove very negative should the opponents not fall into the laid trap. However, the level of technique in Italian football is virtually unsurpassed.
Recent years having been disappointing for Serie A sides where European club competition is concerned. In fact the Champions League has only spent one season in Italian hands so far this century. However, historically this is not the case. Italy has been represented by its club teams in more Champions League finals than any other nation. Twenty-four times have Serie A sides featured in club football’s biggest occasion, winning ten. It is probably the numerous defeats in finals that has seen Italy’s reputation abroad damaged. There is no finer example of this than in the 2005 final. The famous night in the clammy heat of Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium saw Milan squander a three goal half time advantage to eventually lose on penalties to Liverpool following a three-all draw.
What has damaged Italian football the most is the scandal that overshadowed the Azzuri’s forth World Cup triumph in the summer of 2006. The match fixing case in which four of the country’s biggest teams were believed to have partaken in the illegal fixing of league matches. Lazio, Fiorentina, AC Milan and Juventus all stood before an Italian football federation (FIGC) council to hear their fate. The party most directly implicated was the ‘Old Lady’ of Italian football, Juventus. The Bianconeri’s general manager at the time Luciano Moggi was recorded making several phone calls to leading members of the referee’s committee ensuring that ‘favourable’ officials take charge of Juve games. Also, the inquiry sought to look into further irregularities of Serie A, illegal betting involving players, ‘selective’ arrangements of certain fixture’s and the influencing of television programmes to ‘support’ Juventus. Although the other sides mentioned were heavily implicated, it was at Juventus that the scandal struck strongest.
The protracted chain of events saw numerous characters dragged beneath the cowl of controversy that swathed itself around the nation’s summer. Italy’s goalkeeper Gigi Buffon had his house searched, former referee Pierluigi Collina was thought to have some involvement and even Marcelo Lippi, the then Italian national team’s head coach, was considered to be guilty of attempting to influence Juventus officials in certain ways. As a result the ‘old lady’ were relegated, docked points and stripped of the two scudetto (championship titles) that they had won over the previous two seasons. The other accused teams also received varying point deductions but retained their top flight status.
For Juventus the effect was catastrophic, out went the majority of world renowned footballer’s from their ranks, their side was decimated; and for the first time in the club’s history, they would not be playing in Serie A. The Turin club remain the nations’ most successful and look towards a quick return to the top flight as they rebuild following the scandal, however Italian football is still in a process of recovery as a result.
Although we have looked into the recent histories of the three championships and the effect recent years have had upon their status, it is the here and now that we are discussing. The idea of the article is to attempt to compare and contrast the leagues on various aspects. The level of football played, the talent of footballer partaking, the strength of the leading teams, their marketing and power with the European footballing market.
The first and often the most favoured 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.
Comparing the leagues from the perspective of the amount of quality footballers in the division is a far more important application that the wanton ‘name dropping’ exercise. After all, it is the players that draw the support; they create the entertainment and, from a perspective more and more apparent in football, draw the investors.
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 fulfil these extravagant fiscal demands.
Sponsorship, television rights and marketing revenue are now utilised 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.
Especially given the effect of Abramovich’s funding, and the seer magnitude of revenue that Premiership teams gain, we can clearly see that in this instance, it is England that leads the way. This could be due to more than just the football though. In this day and age of mass media, it could be regarded as a factor that British television is a viewed the world over by more people globally than both Spanish and Italian.
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 favourites 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.
Although the effects of calciopoli will be virtually gone after a season or two, it has destroyed a certain competitiveness that always existed in Serie A. With a large clutch of title challengers every season, Italy can, under usual circumstances, consider itself one of Europe’s most open, but unfortunately, as the old phrase dictates: “those who play with fire will eventually get burned” and the metaphoric pyromaniacs have paid their price.
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 scrutinised 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.
As with everything ever created, football is still a matter of opinion and whilst I believe my objective to be both informed and considered, it is still an opinion. In this admission of fallibility I must stress, should you have a; got this far into the article and b; not already gathered, that my perspective upon football is highly elitist. Do not think that I have not had my education; I have spent man hours-a-plenty on the terraces of Notts County, Lincoln City even Ilkeston Town, however my lust for football is borne out of the fact that I wish to be entertained, and that is precisely what these three leagues give.
Each of the three country’s top flights have, in my opinion, one truly exceptional player. Ever since Zidane’s explosive departure from the game in the summer, there is no true icon of the world game, but three pretenders to his vacant crown. In ‘truly exceptional’ I mean someone who can do what others cannot, without question there are many who exemplify all that has gone before. Players such as (and as harsh as it may) Thierry Henry, Raul and Andrea Pirlo put all of the developments that have been made in the way one should play into magnificently portrayed practice, but do not necessarily push the boundaries any further. The players to which I am alluring are Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona’s Ronaldinho Gaucho and Internazionale’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This trio, for me, all seemingly bend the existing rules and create new ones of their own. The supporting cast behind these three I believe to be very well matched in ability. We have differences; I would say there is a more mature dotage of player in Italy than in England, but no less gifted as a result, and Spain fulfils our ‘happy’ medium.
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 materialised. However, in the Premiership, the money just keeps rolling in.
The subject of a particular league’s ‘ease on the eye’ is very much a matter of taste. In many respects I feel that when viewing football I often feel that I am an exception to the usual rule of thumb that dictates the one must ‘look after his own’. In actual fact the birth of this article came when I was watching a Premiership encounter between Manchester City and Watford. The game itself will surely be of little memory to most as a very dull goalless draw was played out. However, what inspired me was the quality of football on display. I can honestly not recall a succession of passes that numbered more than four from either side and the technical standard of the game overall was so low that I became almost ashamed for the standard in this, Engalnd’s ‘elite’ division. It made me beg the question: would a similar game in La Liga or Serie A be of such low standard fare?
After spending my time finding web streams of live games at Levante, ‘Nastic and Athletic Bilbao in Spain (Sky Sports seem only taken by Real or Barca when televising games live) and Torino, Siena and Messina, I drew the conclusion that players in these other divisions are of higher technical standard, and their teams do play a much more methodical and patient system, but the excitement value does not necessarily increase as a result. So the answer I garnered from this was, well no and whilst I appreciate the level of excitement does not diminish in England along with the technique, as a purist I must procrastinate that the Premier League does lose out in the category of style, but its excitement level scrapes it back into watchable contention.
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’s however is and 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 rivalling 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.
Article written by David Hardy
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