My league is better than your league. It’s a fact.
First things first. It is a pretty well accepted and obvious truth that the best soccer leagues are in Europe. I mean this as no great disrespect to the progress soccer has made in the United States in recent years, but the MLS doesn’t come close. Even Brazil and Argentine, giants of the international game, cannot boast anything to rival the dominance of European club soccer. What speaks volumes is that the best South American talent plies its trade in Europe, just like the world’s best basketball players come here to play in the NBA.
But not all European leagues are equal, and even within the continent, talent migrates from country to country. To get some kind of idea how the leagues rate against each other, we should turn to Europe’s premiere competition: the UEFA Champions League.
On an epic night last Saturday in Munich, Chelsea was crowned champion for the first time in the club’s history. Even for impartial soccer fans it was a draining but rewarding experience that was reminiscent, perhaps, of Liverpool’s improbable win over Milan in Istanbul seven years ago. Somehow Bayern Munich squandered every clear chance that came its way, and when it finally took the lead as regulation time began to run out, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba responded to tie the game. Drogba then looked like the villain of the show when he gave away a penalty in extra time, but still Bayern couldn’t make it count.
And to cap it all, we were treated to that rarest of all things: a German team choking on penalties against an English team. There is nothing quite like being in a room full of German soccer fans to make me side with the English squad — not because I have anything against the Germans, but because we just have a lot of soccer history, mostly them beating us — and so, against my better judgment, I was cheering for Chelsea. When keeper Petr Cech saved a shot to bring the London club level and then Drogba sealed the game with his strike, I was ecstatic.
Since the start of the 2000-01 season, seven countries have been represented in the semifinals of the Champions League: England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Though Porto did win the tournament in 2004, the obvious weak links include its home, Portugal, as well as France and Holland, notching up just four appearances between them. Italian teams have won the tournament three times and made the semifinals seven times in this period, but Serie A will no longer be considered one of Europe’s three biggest leagues next season, being replaced by Germany’s Bundesliga, and it will now receive just three tickets into the Champions League.
Though the Bundesliga’s status has been upgraded, in these last 12 years German teams have only won the title once and made the semifinals on five occasions. In comparison, Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League have sent 15 and 17 teams to the semifinals and walked away with four and three titles, respectively.
La Liga would probably be many people’s pick, but I feel that misses a crucial point. The Spanish league is dominated by the big two of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The three recent times that Barca won it also simultaneously claimed top spot in La Liga, and though Real Madrid only came third when it won the Champions League in 2002, that was still sufficient to qualify for the tournament the following year.
In stark contrast, while Manchester United claimed the double of European and domestic honors in 2008, Liverpool in 2005 and Chelsea this year finished fifth and sixth respectively, outside of the Champions League qualification spots. Liverpool’s case prompted a change in the rules to allow the defending champions automatic qualification the following year, and this rule caused Tottenham Hotspur to lose its place in favor of Chelsea next season.
The hallmark of a great league is that tough competition makes the best teams better. If one or two teams begin to dominate, the challenge from the competition falls off, and over time, even the best teams will lose their sharpness. That only one English team completed the double in this period where Barcelona netted three joint home and European titles could hint that the combined challenge of toughing it out in both the Premier League and Champions League at the same time is just too much. The Premiership is truly the best league in world soccer.
And in case you haven’t seen where I’m going yet, yes, starting in August this’ll be the domain of my home club, Reading FC.
Tom Taylor is taking every opportunity he can to call the Premier League “my league.” Ask him how many goals he’s scored in his career at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.