The Best in Europe
Buried in the comments sections of internet articles on Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Barcelona internet trolls and fan boys will take gratuitous shots at other commentators’ teams, their leagues, and the intimate details of their romantic lives with their immediate family members. It is inevitable. Like the world of NCAA college football, the tribal world of international football play in separate leagues, with differing fan cultures and rivalries, and only rarely to these worlds overlap in bowl season or European cup competitions.
Can statistics and comparisons actually state which league is the best? I see it every time an English team crashes out of European competition, and every time a Spanish giant hoists up the European Cup for the nth time in their history: The supporters and detractors immediately make claims to the supremacy of their respective league in the same way as PAC12 and SEC supporters fight it out every January. So, I analyzed the six largest leagues in Europe to see if there are any conclusions we can draw regarding league supremacy. I plotted and charted the results and tables of the German Bundesliga, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1, and Dutch Eredivisie as well as the UEFA Champions League and Europa League competitions for the past six seasons.
I will say that some of my preconceptions were smashed. I had always assumed that simply because I did not follow, and therefore did not know, any of the teams in La Liga (outside the obvious top three), that La Liga was simply another European league with a dominant force that crushed the rest of the league every year. In fact, La Liga showed similar parity to the other leagues.
In this chart, for instance, even if one is to take into consideration teams in the Bundesliga and Eredivisie play four fewer matches than the rest of the leagues, there are fluctuations from year to year and it is difficult to point to a larger trend. Yes, La Liga may be a slightly less balanced league when comparing its champions to its lowest side, but what must we do with the 2012-13 Bayern side, or 2013-14 Juventus?
Is league supremacy dependent upon a diversity of success, or how many different clubs win the championship? I would not consider Ligue 1 to be seriously considered the top league in Europe, yet by that metric, they have had the most unique champions and top-four finishers. Similarly, the number of unique clubs that play in the top flight can be analyzed. Ligue 1 has the highest number even when adjusted for league size. Despite the common perception of the volatility of the Bundesliga, the inclusion of a relegation playoff makes their league the second lowest percentage-wise of the number of clubs to have played at least a season in the top division.
Title Race and Europe
So, what about the title race? Can we draw any conclusions from there? The detractors of the Bundesliga like to point to Bayern’s last three years in which they seemingly wrapped up the Meisterschale months before the end of the season as proof of the inferiority of the league.
When looking at the data, the 2012-13 Bayern championship looks to be an outlier that is now regressing toward the mean. Yet, even with this, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusion. And when confronted by the Bayern subject, Bundesliga apologists point to the competition for European slots as a selling point to the league.
Yet, even when one mentally adjusts the data to reflect the four matches less in the German league, the numbers between places three and seven in the table do not show any particular trend or conclusion.
The best and most compelling evidence for league dominance comes from looking at European competition.
In the Champions League, La Liga teams have appeared in more quarterfinals, semifinals, and have won more championships than any other league. Granted, these sides almost entirely consist of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, but the same could be said about Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund. It isn’t until the Europa League is looked at that the picture emerges clearer.
Now it is entirely possible that La Liga clubs simply take the Europa League more seriously than do others (simply look at how the English sides have fared/prepared for Europa fixtures of late), but there is no denying La Liga supremacy when matched against other leagues in European competition.
Who is the Best?
So, what is the whole point of all this? Which league is the best? How do you define the best? Certainly Spain has two sides in Real and Barca which can be considered favorites at any time to win the European Cup, while Germany has one, and no other league can even boast one. However La Liga also has matches in which Barca and Real obliterate opponents 8-0, 6-0, 5-0 with less-than-surprising regularity. The English Premier League is the wealthiest, the most watched on television internationally, and has the highest paid players in the world, but the fact that fans may have to place a second mortgage on their home for a season ticket tend to keep stadium atmospheres quite dull. The German Bundesliga has the highest attendance, highest goals, and lowest ticket cost on average than any other of the analyzed leagues, yet it is persistently annoying to have a league of Bayern versus this year’s also-ran.
The point is, there is no point. Fandom is felt, not analyzed. It is emotion and not logic that compels us to watch the next match even when our head tells us we are going to lose (unless you’re Bayern). We in America have a gift. Unlike the Potter born in Stoke-on-Trent, we can chose whether we wish to follow all of Stoke City’s matches in all of Ryan Shawcross’ bone-crunching glory. Because I was not raised on Tyneside, I was able to escape my initial fandom of the Toon while the Mike Ashley-piloted Titanic plowed into the iceberg. I was able to choose my club of BVB based upon my own metric of greatness: a club with history, tradition, some titles and success, and a massive fan-culture. So, if you are a Barca fan because you worship the ground above which Leo Messi floats, or if you are a Real Madrid fan because your Spanish-speaking friends like them, or if you are a Chelsea fan because you like dour, pragmatic, but winning football; then you are fine by me. What is the best league? What is the best team? Easy. It is YOUR team. It is always YOUR team.