Top leagues around the World
It is the best league in the world. The star players, the transfer budgets, the money, the global appeal, the unpredictable race for the title. No other league has that. You often see these lines being displayed on social media sites by ardent fans- mostly in India we see EPL fans proclaiming the league as the best league in the world only to be sneered at by La Liga, Bundesliga and other league fanatics.
It is very clear that there exists a certain bias amongst most fans towards their beloved league which often clouds their judgment towards the other leagues so what should be a healthy discussion often ends up being a you versus me slanging match. It begs the question- what truly makes a league the best?
To unearth some semblance of an answer we can look at the various factors that determine what we refer to as the Best- Star power, Global Appeal, Quality of Football, Excitement, Branding, Emergence of young talent, The success of the national team, Financial muscle, Television Coverage, Stadium Attendances, Financial Stability. We can start by analyzing the pros and cons of the major European leagues in context of the above criteria.
English Premier League:
I grew up in the 90s when English football did not really get through to us in India. It was towards the dawn of the millennium when ESPN brought the Premier league to our homes. And thus began the love affair.
The timings especially during the evenings when you could come home from work or school and watch football truly brought exposure to the league and from there on it grew to the giant it is today. However, when we look at the factors listed above we see the following results. In terms of star power, branding, excitement, financial muscle, television coverage the EPL arguably is the best.
The other factors offer us a superficial picture. When we look at stadium attendances, a very disturbing picture comes to the fore. You have for example the Manchester derby running to packed stadiums and you think that EPL truly generates fan excitement. But you look at West Brom vs Swansea being played in a half empty stadium and that is puzzling. We are hearing reports of expensive ticket prices being charged by most clubs which also tells a picture of the EPL clubs slowly moving away from the traditional community atmosphere and becoming business entities whose sole objective is profit. We rarely see an example of a Manchester United class of 92 being given opportunities as most clubs want readymade stars. So all we get is once in a blue moon Marcus Rashford or a Raheem Sterling but mostly it is the big names.
The so called experts who proudly beam at the net transfer fees being spent by the EPL are the same ones who moan about the lack of young British talent every time the national team comes up a cropper at major tournaments. Regarding the quality of football it has improved from the days of the tall lumbering center forward heading a cross coming in from the wings. We have seen some good passing and creative football from the likes of Cantona, Henry, Zola, Ronaldo, David Silva who have improved the general skill levels but still you sometimes watch games where you see a lot of running and huffing and puffing. An increased pace does not always mean a high quality game is being played. My biggest grouse with EPL is the lack of administration which has affected the financial stability of the league as a whole.
One wonders how Leeds who reached the Champions league semis in 2001 ended up in the doldrums and Portsmouth who won the FA cup in 2009 went into administration a year later. From my time I remember a club called Coventry City who are nowadays owned by a hedge fund group called Sisu and do not have a ground to play on. We see Man City posting losses each year and still wasting money on players who they do not need.
Is the EPL administration solely concerned about big money or do they actually monitor ownership, balance sheets and youth development. The glitz and glamour of EPL hide some ugly truths which the ardent fanatics ignore comfortably.
Spanish La Liga:
I go back to my time from the mid 90s. Cable television came with Star network and a channel called Prime Sports gave us the Spanish Primera Liga.
We saw Stoichkov,Romario for Barcelona and Zamorano,Laudrup,Suker for Real Madrid. As time passed Rivaldo,Raul,Figo,Zidane occupied our hearts and we had little gems like Tristan,Makaay from Deportivo and Aimar,Claudio Lopez,Canizzares from that great Valencia side that stormed Europe. Today its Messi,Ronaldo,Griezmann that rule our hearts. Star Power, Financial muscle and global attraction have always been La Ligas symbols.
However once again a close look reveals that the Big Two have always controlled the major shares and revenues which in turn has decimated the rest. From my time Oviedo, Racing Santander,Mallorca(remember them with Samuel Eto) have gone down into the depths of despair. An Atletico, Valencia or Sevilla can occasionally spoil the party but they have always been cowed down and put in their place by the big two. However young stars have always been encouraged by La Liga and with them the national team has found huge success.
In terms of television coverage La Liga has now forced most teams to play early afternoon as to capture the Asian TV market. How will it affect the home grown fans remains to be seen. One aspect of the big two controlling the league has meant that the league title race becomes a predictable affair which is the biggest negative for the leagues image. However the quality of football is really good.
You can watch Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Villareal, Athletic Club playing good quality football that is pleasing to the eye. La Liga fans always point to the quality of their beloved Real or Barca but the fact is that the league needs to grow beyond them.
Bayern Munich are the symbol of Bundesliga. A powerhouse that grooms talent, buys stars and has an intimidating image. They are without doubt the brand ambassadors of the league globally. But one aspect of the league that has always been admirable is the fan friendly attitude that sees economical ticket prices and packed stadiums at every game whether it is a top of the table clash or a relegation battle.
The clubs run on a strong and stable financial model which also sees a huge growth of young talent that gradually translates to success for the national team. The DFB after the debacle of Euro 2004 intervened to create a structure that combined success at the club level with youth development and the results are there to see. Financial muscle has not always been a strong point and television coverage has been mostly decided by their own suitable kick off times.
Dortmund in the recent past have created a template where they look to pluck unknown gems from abroad like a Lewandowski and combine them with their own talents like a Goetze. The quality of football has generally improved and teams like Mainz,Hoffenheim, Leverkusen always bring a smile to your face with their fresh exuberance and loyalty towards their core values.
The Bayern factor will always be a stick to beat the Bundesliga with by other fans but the league as a whole has its own niche following. They are not trying to compete with EPL for the bigger pie but are building a core fan base of their own without deviating from their principles.
Italian Serie A:
I grew up in the Doordarshan era watching Serie A with the likes of Van Baasten, Maradona, Klinsmann giving Serie A an attractive allure that has stayed on with me beyond the years. Leaving my own personal choice aside, Serie A kept up its charm till the late 90s but successive years of mismanagement, shady financial dealings and other flaws gradually caught up with the league and made it fall of its halo with the onslaught of EPL, La Liga.
Today it is a poor shadow of its self but that tradition and charm are still present in the minds of the avid Serie A fan. However as a Serie A follower myself, I find it very hard to highlight positives. The major negatives are a lack of young talent which have made Italian football seem ordinary. To go from watching Vieri, Del Piero, Zola up front to seeing Balotelli,Pelle,Immobile is disheartening. Watching a Parma that once had Buffon,Nesta,Cannavaro,Crespo,Asprilla in their ranks go into oblivion is sickening and tells you all about the financial mess that is Serie A.
Match Fixing has dented its image severely which has put off top players from coming to the league. Racism, Non existent television appeal and lack of any credible brand names or any proper structure have seen Serie A become a laughing stock. But the nostalgic appeal of Serie A still captivates you. The football has always stayed true to its Italian roots- technique, skill, vision and tactical awareness.
It is like watching football school. The Italian defender will always be the symbol of Serie A and all that is needed is for the Italian FA and government is to untangle football from the criminal nexus called the Mafia. Everything else will happen afterwards.
French Ligue 1:
Ligue 1 was always a background entity. In the 90s Marseille shocked Europe with a team having Rudi Voeller,Barthez,Desailly winning the inaugural Champions league and then getting suspended for match fixing in Ligue 1.
Over the years Monaco and Lyon captured everybodys attention with players like Henry, Giuly, Benzema, Essien causing brief upsets. But with the advent of PSGs Qatari owners suddenly Ligue 1 has been catapulted into the limelight. Again PSG look like they are in a world of their own with star players and huge cash reserves. How will they face the future if their owners pull the plug will be something interesting to ponder about.
However Ligue 1 as a whole has always been a conveyor belt of young talent- Henry,Zidane,Benzema,Lloris,Lacazette,Mbappe and loads of African youngsters storming the nation. It has always been a feeder league for the other leagues.
It points to a strong scouting system and keen eye for youth development. The quality of football is generally good but nothing extraordinary. However Lyon,Monaco ( with Bernado Silva and the young gang) are like fresh air and hopefully new teams can capture our attention. Ligue 1 needs to grow a long way before they can challenge the top European Heavyweights but for now the league is steady and stable.
A true football fan shall always enjoy good football no matter what league they are watching. Arguments as to which is the best are ultimately futile but cycles where one is comparatively better than the other will be a natural phenomenon. As of now it seems the most popular league is indeed EPL. The Best- that is best left to all of you to decide.