Former Milan and Italy legend Arrigo Sacchi believes Italian football is not the force it once was and is falling behind clubs of the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga in terms of status and financial prowess. The comments made by the legendary Coach echoed the patter of current Serie A Tactician Jose Mourinho, who earlier this season warned Serie A does not have the same international appeal as the English and Spanish leagues. Are these figureheads of the game right? It only serves to beg the question, which country boasts Europe’s top league?
Money makes the world go round and the same is true in football. The wealthiest clubs can afford to attract the top players and thus win major trophies. Talking on Kiss Kiss Radio Sacchi said: "Years ago, when our [Italian] football was richer and more money was spent, it would have been difficult to imagine selling our stars. Now the situation is different and perhaps it's necessary to sell some of our players for a higher value to bring in money." Sacchi’s comments were prompted by Manchester City’s interest in Italy’s No.1 Gianluigi Buffon, and with the club having recently been bankrolled by Abu Dhabi United Group are deemed to be the richest in the world.
To some degree, Sacchi has a point. Italian clubs have attracted the world’s best players to Serie A for decades. During the Eighties and Nineties was undoubtedly when Serie A was the cream of European football. The likes of Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Zinedine Zidane, Lothar Matthaus and Ronaldo, to name a few, highlight the calibre of overseas players who paraded in Italy’s wonderful arenas in the past. In today’s game, Serie A still boasts the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano. David Beckham - the world’s highest earning footballer in the world - has also opted to play in Serie A rather than return back to Spain or his native homeland, albeit for a brief loan stint.
The dominance of Italian clubs bringing top players to the peninsula is reflected in the European Player of the Year Award. Since 1980, no fewer than 16 players plying their trade in Italy have been awarded the Ballon d’Or. Spanish sides have produced six winners and English clubs just two - including this year’s Portuguese maestro Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet despite the financial pulling power from the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga and Manchester United and Chelsea in England, Italy still continues to attract some of the world’s elite. Since the turn of the century the Ballon d’Or has been collected by five Serie A talismans, and four previous winners are currently signed to Italian clubs - Kaka, Ronaldinho, Pavel Nedved and Andriy Shevchenko.
Looking at the past winners of the Champions League (formerly known as the European Cup) makes an interesting read as the three leagues can’t be separated.Each of the above mentioned leagues have had representatives lifting the trophy on eleven occasions.Although Italy has seen more beaten finalists with 14 teams falling at the last hurdle in comparison to Spain’s nine and England’s five. The last country to dominate the tournament was England as far back as the late Seventies and early Eighties when Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa returned home with the trophy in six consecutive years.
Since 1980, Spain has harboured five Champions League winning teams whilst Italy and England have each seen one of their clubs lift the trophy on seven occasions (although taking into account the ban on English clubs from European competition for five years during the late 1980’s, following the tragic incident in Belgium’s Heysel Stadium during the European Cup final of '85 involving Liverpool fans). The English league is now proving to be a dominating force in Europe once again, having had a representative in the final for the last four consecutive seasons including last year’s all-English final between Manchester United and Chelsea. For the last two years three English teams have reached the last four of the competition too. Italian success in the competition in recent years has very much been that of Milan’s.
The current supremacy of English clubs can most likely be directly linked to the staggering finances available to them. Annual revenue rankings produced by accountancy firm Deloitte list three English clubs in the top five, four in the top ten. Manchester United top the list with Arsenal and Liverpool sitting third and fourth respectively. Real Madrid and Barcelona are still the only teams to represent Spain whilst Italy has seen a fallout of teams in the last five years. Italian teams have consistently held at least three places in the top ten. Milan is an ever-present and this year they have been rejoined by Juventus who fell from grace and the list after the match-fixing scandal of 2006. However, Roma has dropped out, ironically along with Inter, Italy’s most successful club of recent times.
The figures produced by Deloitte of course are only based on the annual income of club earnings generated through ticket sales, merchandise and prize money and does not include the personal wealth of their respective owners. If that were the case, Roman Abramovich’s £10.2b fortune would put Chelsea top at the time of the report, but now even that has been surpassed by Man City’s new owners worth an estimated £14.4b. With this kind of wealth and the number of English clubs being taken over by overseas investors, Sacchi’s concern for the future of Italian football is understandable.
This however does not detract from the wealth of players attracted by clubs in Italy or Spain and the continuing success of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Milan in European competition, plus their ability to invest in top players is testament to the quality of their respective leagues. Premier League football is a physical game played at a frantic pace, particularly in comparison to their mainland counterparts. The continental game is arguably more technically adept. Tactics and formations are more diverse and astute in the peninsula, taking a more significant role in games and their outcomes. The success of the national teams in part reflects the respective countries differing styles and approaches to the game. Italy are World Champions, the Spanish are Champions of Europe and the England team are booed every time they play at Wembley.
Wealth, club success, technical aspects of the leagues, the number of world-class players in the league, their ability to attract talent to the country, the national team’s successes - all these factors have to be taken into account when comparing the leagues of Italy, Spain and England.
Each come out top in different areas and so it leads to the question,
Which is the best league in Europe?