What if we could determine the best league in the world once and for all? Wait. We can.
There’s something magnificent about Yahoo Answers. I don’t even mean in a goddammit-there’s-a-whole-lotta-stupid-out-there kind of way, although that’s certainly part of the magic. It’s that, in spite of all the misinformed responses, the questionable spelling and grammar, and the disturbing caricaturized avatars, it’s always worth coming back to. It’s kind of like browsing YouTube user comments – sure, you can pout about the inanity of internet banter, but that didn’t stop you from reading 13 pages of angry adolescents coming to the defense of Justin Bieber. So that’s what I was doing on Monday night – reading random posts on Yahoo Answers. (If the world is my oyster, I’m getting hepatitis.)
Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across a question that’s been posed many times before, but especially in the last twelve months: Which league is the best in the world? There have been points in history when there was probably a clear favorite (Serie A in the 1990s, for example), although more recently the answer has been less decisive. Nonetheless, the undeniable frontrunners these days are the EPL and La Liga. Which of the two FAs emerges as number one is, subjectively, a matter of nationalist preference. Like an ESPN.com polling map asking which team will win the Super Bowl, the outliers are always the regions where the teams in question play. The Spanish will tout La Liga; the English vouch for the EPL. No surprise there.
But what about an objective measure of league strength? Is it possible to crunch a sufficient amount of numbers to claim once and for all which country predominates?
There are several indicators worth mentioning:
According to this argument, the better league is the one which produces the most success outside the league. This, in many ways, in one of the more valid measures since it is (at least somewhat) standardized. You could argue for the toughness of the Premier League or the dynamism of La Liga, but doing so is using the same set of variables in two different equations. Measuring international performance turns an “apples and oranges” debate into a “Granny Smith and Red Delicious” one, not unlike using the SAT (or ACT) to evaluate students in different school districts. Realistically, the Champions League and Europa League are the only tournaments worth investigating. In terms of sheer wins, La Liga wins hands down (5 wins to 2 in the Champions League since 2000, 4 to 1 in Europa League during the same period). However, the EPL would get a shout for the number of teams it consistently pushes through the knockout phases of the UCL each year, whereas Real Madrid and Barcelona are typically the sole La Liga representatives in the later stages (although Valencia did finish runner-up in 2001).
League Depth and Parity
EPL exponents constantly talk about La Liga being a two-horse race, and in a lot of ways that argument has merit. After all, third place Valencia finished an astonishing 21 points behind runners-up Real Madrid last season. The contention is that, if the conversation is about league strength, then the entire league must be evaluated – not just the standouts. A few questions inform the matter. First, how many teams are competing for the title each year? Second, how competitive are the worst teams in the league? Third, how equitable is the league overall?
To the first question, the Premier League is the clear winner, producing a tight title race each season (although Manchester United and Chelsea have dominated the championship for some years now). To the second, the answer could go either way – in spite of some critics’ claims that Spain’s bottom feeders are abysmal, they are ironically the sides that perennially give the top two trouble (Barcelona were 2-0 victims at home to relegated Hercules last season, while Madrid endured shock losses to Gijon and Real Zaragoza at the Bernabeu). To the third question, while the gap in points between first and last is similar in both leagues, the EPL exhibits a more equal distribution of points overall.
However, it’s difficult to compare teams that never face each other in competition; league depth is a relativistic argument. For all we know, Granada could beat Manchester City in a head-to-head (or, on the contrary, Barcelona could lose on a rainy day in Stoke).
Simply put, where do the best players play? Ballon d’Or nominations may help answer this question. Of the players who have been finalists for the Player of the Year award since 2000, five currently play in each of the two leagues. Nonetheless the tiebreaker has to go to La Liga, for boasting more winners, more nominations overall, and more finalists currently on form. (Three of those Premier League players are Michael Owen, Thierry Henry, and Fernando Torres. Yikes.)
Once again, however, as was the case with the “continental success” measure, the sample size here is very small and error-prone, erroneously targeting a handful of the hundreds of players to be indicative of the league strength overall.
This is less of a hard-and-fast measure and more of a talking point. Where are the big money transfers coming from, and where are they going to? Ostensibly, if one league really is better than the rest, a lion’s share of stars will want to make the move there. England is traditionally a popular country for foreign players, whereas few big names (David Beckham and Steve McManaman are exceptions) move outside of England. This past transfer season was no exception. The EPL claimed big names like David De Gea, Juan Mata, Kun Aguero, and Gervinho, while few notable players exited the league (save for wash-outs, underachievers, and loans, like Alberto Aquilani, Jerome Boateng, and Joe Cole, respectively). Spain, as well, secured signatures from stars such as Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, Nuri Sahin, Jeremy Toulalan, Falcao, Fabio Coentrao, Adil Rami, and Cristian Zapata.
The difference is the current between these two leagues. Whereas La Liga vets de Gea, Mata, and Aguero all exited for England, only Fabregas traveled the other way (and only to be with his boyhood club). The edge here probably goes to the Premier League.
Four measures, and nary one of them is definitive. But you probably knew that already, or else we’d have an answer to this burning question already. So where do we go from here? How do we put this debate to rest?
My proposal, which treads the border between brilliance and absurdity, is provisionally named the “EuroLeague Cup.” Imagine an inter-league all-star competition, in which the world’s top FAs would submit prestigious squads to compete for annual bragging rights to the “Best in the World” title. Good luck convincing governing bodies, club presidents, and managers, but here’s what the format would look like:
– The eight biggest leagues in Europe, according to the UEFA coefficient (currently England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Russia, Ukraine), would compete.
– The tournament would take place on neutral ground.
– The respective football associations of each country would select a manager and 25-man squad to represent the best of the league. To ensure parity, at least one player from each club would need to be selected, and no more than three players from any team could be selected.
– The tournament would consist of a group stage featuring two groups of four teams each. These teams would face off in a round robin competition for a total of three matches each.
– The top two teams in each group would advance to a semi-final knockout game. The #1 seed from group A would face the #2 seed from group B, and vice versa.
– The winners would advance to the final, where the greatest league in the world would be determined once and for all.
Done and dusted. Never mind the headache of scheduling (probably 3 weeks or so, before the friendly circuit starts in the summer), establishing a location and time frame (every two years, staggered in World Cup and Euros off years), and convincing players to play for an admittedly trivial title (they’d be held at gunpoint). The point is, this is the one of two ways we’re ever going to answer this question.
The other way, you ask? Yahoo Answers, of course, where, according to one user, “epl hav torres so them.”
Hav torres, indeed.