Hot on the heels of the FIFA World Player of the Year nominations, a neutral observer may conclude that with Spain getting more nominees, the top Spanish league appears to be the best.
Having followed the three major football leagues—English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and the Italian Serie A—for many years, I believe that at various times, these leagues exchanged positions as the best. In terms of an identity or label, the English game can be characterized as a game of stamina and sprinting. The Spanish view the beautiful game as an art to be enjoyed, while it is a tactical discipline or mindset to the Italians.
In the past 15 years, certain features have become more distinct. It is these differences that I will examine. First is the storied English Premiership. When the old Division One was rebranded as the Premier league in the mid-1990s, no one knew what to expect. During the course of time, it has grown into its present powerhouse status.
Its television rights management and name brand is the envy of others. The money muscle that this has enthroned is nothing short of astonishing. Thankfully, it has not led to a situation where most clubs are made irrelevant by a select one or two.
In addition, the entry of rich benefactors, as club owners, have left its thumbprint. The recent Liverpool ownership buyout ordeal was a sore wound to all true football fans. Portsmouth went through a damaging ownership merry-go-round from which it is yet to recover. Arsenal remains a model of sports management excellence. The Gunners operate within a setup that is both rare (a diverse ownership structure) and revolutionary (by developing in-house talent, there is no reckless spending to buy players) by making an operating profit where others have posted losses.
The inflated players' market can be traced to irrational amounts, first spent by Roman Abramovich who bought Chelsea in 2004. Currently, he has been replaced by an Abu Dhabi sheik, Sheikh Mansour, who bought Manchester City last year from the tainted former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A remarkable testament to the resilience of this league is that no one club has dominated for three years straight. On a given day, any of the top 10 clubs can—and do—beat the top four favorites.
In contrast, the Spanish league seems to be an inheritance that is passed between Real Madrid and the pride of Catalonia: Barcelona. These two clubs drown out others by their spending might. Real coughed up 80 million euros for just one player—Cristiano Ronaldo—and spent over 200 million in the transfer season two years ago. In essence, the other teams serve as feeder clubs to La Liga's top two. The television rights system just enriches those two clubs even more to the detriment of others since they already have solid brand names.
The race for the scudetto in Italy has steadily been declining due to a series of corruption scandals that soiled—surprisingly among others—Juventus and AC Milan at one point or another. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who owns AC Milan and is a major media owner, has been a corruption and scandal magnet. His influence, many believed, enabled Milan to avoid be relegated with Juventus a few seasons ago following revelations of widespread match fixing. The atmosphere of bribery and collusion, in the birthplace of the Mafia, continues to tarnish the Italian game. Inter Milan has dominated the other two within the last five years.
Overall, the Premiership is not without its shortcomings or challenges. However, it comes closer to being the best of the top three soccer leagues in the world. Or so I think.