As a very talented writer recently pointed out here on BR (link) the Eredivisie has been used in the previous two decades as a stepping stone in the careers of many young up-and-comers in the beautiful game.
Examples are plentiful, but the most foremost in many minds (and as pointed out about said talented writer) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (others that come immediately to mind include the Dutch contingent in Real Madrid, Van Persie in Arsenal, Kuyt in Liverpool, Van Bommel in Bayern Munich).
Because of this ubiquitous fact, the talent pool coming into the Dutch Eredivisie has floundered in recent years. At one time, the total football sporting sides of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, and even Feyenoord, were feared amongst the top flights in what was considered the cream leagues of that in the EPL, La Liga, and Serie A.
Any more, it seems that not a single one of the big three can muster a position passed the qualifying round in the Champion's League.
The inevitable question that arises from recent trends is, if the same tenors continue for the Eredivisie, what will remain but a group of tattered players going through the motions, waiting for the prodigal giants like Real Madrid to snipe the talent from the pool?
Is this the ultimate fate of the Eredivisie, and by extension, the rest of the "feeder leagues" in European football?
While it certainly is possible, it is not inevitable.
I do not believe, however, that this trend is anything at all akin to a swinging pendulum; that at one side, the pendulum reaches an apex of its swing in such leagues as the EPL and La Liga, only to return to their rightful counterpart, ad infinitum.
So, what exactly is the problem?
The Simple Answer
The simple word: talent. Many fantastic players start in the Dutch league, whether they be from The Netherlands, or otherwise (example: Ibrahimovic). However, before team-dynasties can be established in the Eredivisie, the players that show phenomenal promise are picked off by the larger clubs in the larger, more competitive leagues.
A more complicated answer: power-vacuums. Prior to the establishment of the Eredivisie in 1956, three clubs had formally dominated the Dutch football division. These teams are consequently the same teams that dominate today, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, and Feyenoord, and are also the founding members of the Eredivisie.
In fact, the only other teams to have won an Eredivisie championship are Sparta Rotterdam and AZ, and these championships came only three times (the third of which came last year when AZ topped the table, with FC Twente close behind). In the 52-year history of the professional league, the "Big Three" have won 49 of the years, with Ajax and PSV being the frontmost of this category.
This is somewhat comparable to the larger leagues. In the EPL, the majority of the titles have been won by Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal. In La Liga, Real Madrid have been the kings of the pond, followed by Barcelona, and then Atletico Madrid. Serie A has been championed by three clubs as well, Juventus on top, with AC Milan and Inter following close behind.
However, one statistic that isn't present in these other three leagues is the power-vacuum in the Eredivisie. Even though the EPL has been ruled by three top clubs, only four teams outside of the relegation zone (in this current season) haven't won an EPL title. In La Liga, nearly every team has won at least one title, and in Serie A, the majority of the top flight has faired much the same as the EPL.
With this in mind, at the domestic level, what youth with promise would want to sign with a team that hasn't won a single title, and hasn't competed at the domestic level in many, many years? This phenomenon is what I call the domestic power-vacuum.
The "big three" absorb the majority of the talent in Holland, as well as incoming foreign talent. This has resulted in the big three, in whatever permutation, battling it out during the season for the opportunity to raise the Eredivisie title banner, with the exception of the three years mentioned above.
Due to the outright dominance by three teams in the Eredivisie, very few teams in the Dutch league are able to boast about their players. Because the three clubs create a domestic power-vacuum that is mightily difficult to overcome, the overall competition of the Eredivisie has fallen off considerably. This has led to an overall weakness in the league itself.
Very few players are willing to make a career commitment to a league that are unable to produce competition on the inter-league level. This weakening, and lack of influx of talent, is what I refer to as the international power-vacuum.
This is the genesis of the career stepping stone for many younger players. They fear they cannot hack into the higher leagues, so they use the Eredivisie as a veritable proving grounds. When they have ultimately shown their talent, they are picked up by larger clubs in larger leagues, leaving a hole that must be filled by presumably weaker talent.
Since many players have looked to the Eredivisie as a proving grounds for their future career, many teams find it difficult to maintain a constant core around which to build their team.
The franchise players in Xavi and Puyol in Barcelona, Steven Gerard in Liverpool, Frank Lampard in Chelsea, and Raul in Real Madrid, simply do not exist in the Eredivisie, because the kernels around which a team can be constructed are removed by big buyouts long before the team can be established.
From this, it follows that the overall compositions of teams in the Eredivisie never has any semblance of constancy. In fact, because players often move onto green pastures or use the Eredivisie as their Stud, the composition of a team has a spell of 3-4 year continuousness before the roster has been completely reordered from three years in its past.
This process has had devastating effects on the Champions League statistics of the Eredivisie. The last time a Dutch team has made its way out of the group stage since the 2006-07 season, where PSV was eliminated in the first bracket. It was two years before that a Dutch team last made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, and that, too, was PSV.
One has to travel back nearly an entire decade before she reaches the point the last time a Dutch team was in the finals of the Champions League; in the 1995-96 season, Ajax, ultimately losing. A year prior, the 1994-95 season, is when Ajax won the Champions League.
In fact, there has only been once in the Eredivisie/Champions League history (as far as my statistics extended) that the Eredivisie was represented by more than two clubs in the Champions League. 1999-2000 season was this year, and two of whom, Willem II and PSV, were eliminated before the end of the first group stage, with Feyenoord to follow in the second.
In contrast, the top flight leagues of EPL, Serie A, La Liga, and Bundesliga, have been represented amply in the Champions League. Of the 17 years I compiled statistics for, the EPL has had a representative in the CL final seven times, and La Liga abreast with EPL, with seven also.
Serie A bestrided both of these leagues, however, being represented a total of 10 times in 17 years (although their numbers as of late have fallen off in favor of the former two in recent years). The Bundesliga rolls into town with a comfortable four representations (most of which Bayern Munich).
An even more astonishing fact is that of the previous 17 years of Champions League history, the above four leagues have had at least one team in the CL final, except for the 03-04 season, where Porto (Portugal) and Monaco (France) ended the Champions League march.
As a matter of fact, there have been three times in the last 10 years where one of these leagues has completely dominated the final. In the 1999-2000 season, Spain was represented in the final by both Real Madrid and Valencia; in 2002-2003, Italy boasted its two largest clubs, Juventus and Milan, as the CL's final; and in recent memory, 2007-2008, Chelsea and Manchester United represented the EPL in the CL final.
The effects of the two power-vacuums are very real, as I have just surveyed. Keep your eyes peeled for the next part in the two part series, where I will provide recommendations of how the Eredivisie can overcome its 8th UEFA ranking, and rise to challenge the top five leagues.
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