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UPDATE: This article featured in A Football Report’s “Best of Football Writing in 2012” list
European Football has seen shifts in domination over the past few years. There was an occasion where Serie A teams were considered the top sides with the best players. The image of Italian football has disintegrated and with it the quality of its domestic league. La Liga has maintained a prominent position with its two giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid. English clubs saw a rise in quality and success in the 21st century. While Bayern have maintained a strong hold from Germany and have been assisted by the recent rise of Dortmund.
This article will deal with calculating and drawing a comparison between the top European leagues and seeing which is the most Competitive League in the World, which could also help us compute which is the Best League in the World.
It should also be noted that this article will deal with only 4 of the top European Leagues, with the French Ligue 1 being excluded from the list. Despite the emergence of PSG, French Ligue 1 is a good few years behind the remaining leagues.
I should mention here that to do a comparative study of the different leagues, a base year needs to be chosen. Without any particular year to select, the most fair thing to do seems to choose the turn of the century as the base year. So all comparisons will be based on records since the year 2000 (or more specifically starting from the 1999-2000 season).
The above data shows that while certain leagues have had 4 and others 5 winners, there has always been one team that has dominated the European stage. Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid/Barcelona have dominated their respective leagues. The Serie A has a peculiar case, Inter have won the most number, but one would wonder how much Juventus would have dominated had they not been stripped of their Scudetto and subsequently relegated to Serie B.
It is also interesting to note that the current champions of each league won it after a slight hiatus. City won their first in 44 years, Real won theirs after a gap of 3 years, while Juventus won the title after 9 years (excluding the one which was stripped off them). Dortmund won their 2nd successive title, but the first of those was after 9 years. Is there a possible end to domination?
Performance of League Winners
Graphs make understanding this research better. We can also get a true picture of whether domination exists or not. Domination doesn’t have to refer to title wins alone, but consistently competing at the top-level is also included in ‘domination’.
So we will now look at the champions of each league (in the time period pre-decided), and look at how they have performed in their leagues during this time period (i.e. from 1999-2000 till 2011-12).
The Premier League graph clearly has a ‘smooth’ illustration. United and Arsenal have consistently maintained a top finish, while Chelsea (following Abramovich’s takeover) have also maintained a top 4 finish. City are the only side that haven’t been at the top. Only after Sheikh Mansour’s takeover were they able to climb the league table.
In the past few seasons with the extinction of the ‘Big Four’, the league has become far more open with the gap between the top teams and the rest of the league narrower than before. However the top few spots can more or less be predicted and the title contenders are quite evident as well.
The variations in the league positions with the exception of Bayern Munich can be seen here. For example, a team like Wolfsburg that won the title in 2009, finished as low as 15th (a spot above the relegation zone) just 2 seasons later. Vfb Stuttgart won the title in the 2006-07 season. The previous season they had finished a lowly 9th, and failed to defend their title either, finishing 6th.
Now this can be looked at in two ways. It could be a reflection of how poor teams really are, or it showcases the competitiveness inbred in German football. Either way it ensures entertainment value, as the title winner is almost impossible to predict and more interestingly, it is even more futile to attempt to forecast the teams that successfully qualify for the UEFA Champions League.
The first half of the last decade saw a period of dominance in Spain, as we can see above. That dominance has since disintegrated with Valencia hitting a rough patch for a few years before finding their feet again, while Deportivo have been in a downward spiral after some good finishes in the early 2000s. The domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid has continued though. Any fan would be willing to bet their house that either of Real or Barca will finish as champions and the other as runners-up. That has been the general trend in the past few seasons and it is unlikely that it is going to change.
The Serie A has turned away a number of fans and viewers. The future of Italian domestic football looks uncertain. The graph above forecasts a fairly stable few seasons with 4 of the 5 winners maintaining a fairly high finish with the occasional dip in form. Lazio have been the most inconsistent team but seemed to have gained control once more. One would say that Juventus would have enjoyed sheer dominance had they not been caught up in the match-fixing scandal. Instead, Inter came out stronger from the biggest match fixing scandal European football has ever seen, enjoying a period of dominance.
So based on the above data, it can be seen that the Bundesliga has the most erratic graph which stands as proof that it is the most competitive league.The graph also shows what we already know, the Spanish league is a two team domination, and this has been the trend for a few years. Despite the Premier League becoming far more open now, there is still only a few clubs that actually finish at the top, which is quite predictable. Italian football is also seeing a shift in power. Juventus currently seem to be the top side, but two Milan clubs have alternated to have good and bad seasons while Napoli, Lazio, Udinese have been rising as well.
Champions League Performances
There have been 10 different Bundesliga teams to have qualified for the UEFA Champions League in the 21st century. The Serie A has the same number while Premier League has 9. La Liga is the highest in this field with 12. What is fascinating to note is that while England, Spain and Italy enjoyed 4 UEFA Champions League spots for the best part of the last 13 years, the Bundesliga had to accept 3 spots since the 2002-03 season up until last season. Despite the lack of Champions League spots the Bundesliga has managed to match the other league in terms of variation in qualified teams.
As the list above shows, Spain has dominated the Champions League with 5 victories shared between the two giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valencia have the unfortunate record of being the losing side in two consecutive finals. Both England and Italy have 3 wins with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Inter Milan winning it once while AC Milan won it two times. Interesting to note that other than Inter, the other 4 teams mentioned above from England and Italy have also been runners-up once. Bayern Munich are another side that have lost two finals, they did however win it once in 2001 beating Valencia.
Since the 99-00 season, the winners and runners-up have been from the big four leagues of this study except the 03-04 season where Mourinho’s Porto of Portugal defeated Monaco of France.
There have been 5 different (club) representatives for the Premier League Golden Boot award since the turn of the century. Arsenal tops the list with a player winning the golden boot 5 times while playing for the club. Thierry Henry won it 4 times while Robin Van Persie became the first Arsenal player to do so in 6 years when he scored 30 goals last season.
Chelsea are the next highest with 4 Golden Boot awards. Didier Drogba winning it twice, Nicolas Anelka winning it once and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink winning it way back in 2001. Manchester United have won it 3 times with 3 different players, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov. Manchester City and Sunderland both have 1 win each, Carlos Tevez sharing the award in 2011 with Berbatov, while Kevin Phillips scored 30 goals in 2000.
Compared to England, Germany has had far more representatives for the Top Goalscorer. 9 different clubs have had players receiving the top goalscorer award. Martin Max of 1860 München is the only player to have been top goalscorer twice. Bayern Munich are the only side to have won it three times with Giovane Elber, Luca Toni and Mario Gomez.
5 clubs have won it twice: 1860 München (with Martin Max on both occasions), Schalke 04 (Sand and Huntelaar), Bochum (Christiansen and Gekas), Werder Bremen (Ailton and Klose), Wolfsburg (Grafite and Dzeko). Barbarez was Hamburg’s sole representative when he shared the trophy with Sand in 2001. Amoroso is the only Dortmund player to have won it with Martin Max in 2002 while Marek Mintal won it at Nuremberg.
Despite Real Madrid and Barcelona dominating the Pichichi Trophy as well, 7 different clubs have had players winning the award. Real Madrid have won it 4 times with 4 different players. Club Legend Raul won it once, Van Nistelrooy won it once as well in between wins from both the Brazilian and Portuguese Ronaldo. Barcelona had 3 representatives with Eto’o winning it once and Messi twice. Messi along with Forlan is the only one to win the award on more than one occasion in the 21st century. Forlan won it with both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid.
Deportivo is the only other club to have won it more than once when Diego Tristan and Roy Makaay won it in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Salva Ballesta is Racing Santander’s only representative and Danny Güiza is the only Mallorca man to win it.
Italy, like Germany, has 9 different representatives as well. AC Milan has won it 3 times, twice with Andriy Shevchenko and most recently with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 3 clubs have won it twice. Juventus (with Trezeguet and Del Piero), Inter Milan (with Vieri and Ibrahimovic) and Udinese (with Di Natale both the times). The clubs with a single win are Lazio (with Crespo), Piacenza (with Hübner), Livorno (with Lucarelli), Fiorentina (with Toni) and Roma (with Totti).
Andriy Shevchenko, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Antonio Di Natale are the only players to have won it twice. While Ibrahimovic is the only one to have done it with two different clubs i.e. both the Milan clubs.
Performance in domestic cups can also stand as proof for competitiveness in each league. Often this isn’t a priority for many teams and hence some clubs spring a few surprises.
For this particular article, the English League Cup will not be included as the other 3 countries all have only one domestic cup.
There have been 6 different English FA Cup winners with the top teams dominating this particular tournament. Chelsea have been the most impressive team, winning it a remarkable 5 times since the 1999-2000 season. During this period Chelsea have performed well in the League and Europe as well. Arsenal are next with 3 FA Cup victories, the last of which was incidentally their last trophy till date as well. Liverpool have won it twice while both Manchester clubs and Portsmouth have won it once.
The runners-up have been the real surprises with teams like Millwall and Cardiff City reaching the final while still in the lower divisions. Everton, West Ham, Stoke, Southampton and Villa are the other few teams that have been the unlikely runners-up.
In Germany, 5 different clubs have won the DFB-Pokal trophy. Bayern Munich have by far dominated this tournament with an impressive 6 victories in the 21st century, while they just missed out on it last season. Both Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen have won the domestic cup on 3 occasions each. Nuremberg has won it once while defending champions Borussia Dortmund also have 1, their first since 1989.
A couple of surprises here as well in the runners-up category. Union Berlin were in the 3rd division of German football when they reached the final in 2001, Aachen and Duisburg were both in the 2nd division when they were on the losing side in the final. Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern are 2 other teams who reached the final despite not possessing strong sides.
Spain has been the most competitive in terms of domestic cups with 10 different sides winning the Copa Del Rey since the 99-00 season. 5 teams have won it twice in that period. Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Espanyol and Real Zaragoza. The sides that have won it once are Real Madrid, Deportivo, Real Betis and Mallorca. This is a surprise as despite their being domination in the league, it hasn’t translated to the domestic cup.
Atletico Madrid have been runners-up thrice. Real Madrid, Getafe and Athletic Bilbao have finished 2nd best on 2 occasions. The likes of Celta Vigo, Recreativo and Osasuna have also surprised a few with final appearances.
The Coppa Italia has been won by 7 different clubs. Inter Milan have won it on 4 occasions with 2 separate consecutive victories. Lazio have also been successful with 3 victories. AS Roma have won it twice, and that was back-to-back victories. Fiorentina, AC Milan, Napoli and Parma have all had a solitary victory.
Based on the data, it has to be said that the Bundesliga is the most competitive/open league currently. It is a very difficult league to predict with many surprises taking place throughout the season. The Serie A has been springing a few surprises in recent seasons as well and is not too far behind. Napoli, Lazio and Udinese have all emerged while the Milan clubs aren’t the force they once were. The Premier League too is not dominated by the ‘Big Four’ anymore especially with the rise of Man City and development of Spurs. The La Liga though continues to be a two-horse race with Valencia cementing 3rd spot in recent seasons.
A personal recommendation would be to follow the Bundesliga, purely for its entertainment and aesthetic football, if nothing else.
Graphs made at nces.ed.gov. Pictures from premierleague.com,wordinfootball.blogspot.in, asianwavemag.com and fuerzaperica.com.