Everyone has a theory as to which of Europe’s leagues is strongest. It usually involves the Champions League. Who’s right? Max Karakul.
Those who frequently scroll through soccer message boards are likely sick of endless debate over which European league is the strongest. Proponents of various leagues throw around all kinds of metrics and theories, all of which purport to explain exactly why League X is the continent’s best. Almost none of these arguments get anywhere without someone bringing up performance in European competition as the be-all and end-all method of determining Europe’s top league. On the surface, it appears to make sense— if the goal is to figure out who is the best in Europe, the best places to look are competitions in which teams play against opponents from different leagues. Plain and simple, right?
The first problem with using European competition to determine the best league in Europe lies in the numbers. By rule, Champions League can only have four teams from a given country per year. If more than four teams qualify, only the top four actually get to compete. Tottenham knows this rule all too well, after getting their spot stolen by Chelsea two years ago. The Europa League’s qualification rules are significantly more complicated, but with few exceptions, most leagues can qualify three teams for the competition. All in all, the top leagues can put seven teams into Europe. These leagues each have 20 teams, except for the Bundesliga, which has 18. This means that, in a normal year, no league will have more than 38 percent of its teams competing against other countries. That leaves more than 60 percent unrepresented. Drawing conclusions about anything based on only 40% of the data is a bad idea in any academic field, and the same holds true for soccer. European competition does not provide a large enough sample of teams from Europe’s major leagues to truly determine which is the best.
The format of European competitions also prevents them from accurately proving which European league is the strongest. Both the Champions League and Europa League use knockout stages to determine a champion from the final 16 and 32 teams, respectively, in the competitions. On one hand, knockout matches can produce thrilling drama and tension, with many games hinging on one or two plays. On the other, many games hinge on only one or two plays, which means the better team does not always advance. The way things turn in one match can alter the path of the competition as a whole, and as a result, the perceived hierarchy of the major European leagues. For proof, one only needs to look at the most recent champion of Champions League. In 2012-13, Manchester United played Real Madrid in the Round of 16. Entering the second leg at Old Trafford, the teams were tied at 1-1, while Manchester United had one away goal. United looked strong at home, and Madrid looked to have their work cut out for them, until the referee controversially sent Nani off for dangerous play. Madrid gained all the momentum and went on to win the match 2-1, progressing to the next round of the competition. Had Nani stayed on the field, United could certainly have held on and eventually contended for the title.
Later, in the competition’s quarterfinals, Borussia Dortmund played Málaga. Once again, the fixtures were tight. After a scoreless draw in Spain, Málaga held a slim advantage over Dortmund in Germany. Through two minutes of stoppage time, the score was tied 2-2, which would have sent Malage through on away goals. However, in the 93rd minute Felipe Santana scored a third goal for Dortmund from an offsides position. The goal stood and Dortmund went on to the next round before ultimately losing to Bayern Munich in the final.
In each of these cases, one play proved the difference in a two-match series. If Nani only saw yellow for his foul, United likely would have held on. If a linesman had raised his flag in Germany, Málaga would have beaten out Dortmund. If either of those things had happened, the conclusions drawn from last year’s Champions League would have been vastly different.
Following the final, a slew of articles proclaiming the hegemony of the Bundesliga and documenting the demise of La Liga appeared. Would those headlines have remained the same if Málaga won and three of the final four teams in the competition were Spanish? What if United had taken Madrid’s place in the semifinals? Or if Galatasaray had beaten United and made the last four? The possible conclusions vary from the continued dominance of La Liga despite Barca’s relative decline (were Málaga to beat Dortmund) to the idea that some of Europe’s weaker leagues are catching up to the big boys (had Galatasaray beaten United in the quarterfinals). The only things preventing pundits and fans from reaching these wildly different conclusions are a judgment call by a referee and an incorrect offsides call. If one incident can so heavily influence the perceived hierarchy of all of European soccer, how reliable is the evidence from which that perceived hierarchy is drawn?
The Champions League cannot determine which league is strongest. But that doesn’t matter. Fans can argue over whether La Liga, the EPL, Serie A, or any other league is truly the best until the end of time, without ever reaching a consensus. The truth is that all of the major leagues offer something different. The EPL offers big names and a hectic pace; La Liga gives audiences unmatched technical quality and the world’s two best players; the Bundesliga provides unparalleled parity and oozes with young talent. These leagues, as well as the Champions League, must be taken not as competitions fighting for dominance, but for what they truly are: different versions of a supremely entertaining product. Everyone has a choice— get bogged down in invective and circular debate, or enjoy the beautiful game. Nobody has to pick the latter, but doing so certainly makes it easier on the rest of the soccer-watching world.