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The Most Competitive Football Leagues in Europe

James is from Birmingham, England, and enjoys watching the sport of football.

UEFA regulates all of the top international and club competitions in European Football.

UEFA regulates all of the top international and club competitions in European Football.

If you want good, top-quality football (or soccer), then Europe is the place to go. Not only is it home to some of the most famous teams in the world, but it's home to virtually all of the world’s best players. Recently, Europe’s premier club competition, known as the UEFA Champions League, overtook America’s Super Bowl in terms of overall viewership. It’s hardly surprising that this has occurred, as football/soccer is a global brand, while American football, despite the best efforts of the NFL in recent years, is still perceived as predominantly an American sport.

However, many European football leagues have sadly developed a tendency to morph into unbreakable monopolies, where you’ll see only two, three or four different champions across many years. Dynasties are very much the name of the game in European football, with many clubs dominating their respective leagues for up to a decade or more.

Unfortunately, the lopsidedness of European leagues tends to detract from the quality of football being played. It can be frustrating, stifling and utterly boring when you watch a super club steamroll some poor hapless rival, who often only seem to be in the league to make up the numbers. This problem seems to be more pronounced in Europe’s biggest leagues, such as Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League, which make the most money, which in turn often ends up in the coffers of each league's respective super clubs.

But for the discerning football fan who wants exciting, competitive and unpredictable football, there are some interesting alternatives, which I shall outline below.

The logo of the Football League Championship currently sponsored by energy company npower.

The logo of the Football League Championship currently sponsored by energy company npower.

1. Football League Championship

Okay, this isn't technically a ‘top’ European league, but in terms of average attendance, the Championship ranks fifth out of all of Europe’s football leagues. It's ahead of the likes of France’s Ligue 1, which is all the more impressive considering that it’s England’s second-tier league. Once upon a time though, the Football League was England’s top football league competition. But then, 20 years ago, all of the First Division clubs resigned en masse to join the newly created Premier League in search of greater money. In the time since, it has transformed into one of the world’s most lucrative sporting competitions.

The Football League, meanwhile, was left to soldier on as best it could. But like the Premier League, the Football League has also changed over the last 20 years; in recent times it’s become a fantastic alternative for fans sick of the stagnation at the top of the Premier League. So, what exactly is good about the Championship? Firstly, with each new season, there are six new teams which enter the league, three of them are the relegated teams from the Premier League, and the other three are promoted teams from League One. Secondly, virtually all of the clubs are on a similar financial level, therefore you rarely get teams throwing vast sums of money at players or stockpiling their squads with superstars. In fact, all too often a Championship club will usually have any potentially good players poached by a Premier League club, although most of them don’t mind, as long as they receive a decent transfer fee

It’s probably one of the craziest football leagues around, one week your team can win 6-0, and then lose by the same score the next week. It’s truly a gambler’s nightmare, as surprises and upsets are very common. One of the best things I love about the Championship are its promotion playoffs. Let me explain more about these; at the end of each season, the teams that finish first and second win promotion to the Premier League automatically. The team that finishes first claims the league title and receives a very nice trophy. But the teams that finish third to sixth enter the playoffs which decide the final promotion place. It’s a very simple format, which may sound vaguely familiar to readers who follow American sports. The third-placed team faces off against the sixth-placed team, with the fourth and fifth-placed teams contesting the other semi-final, which is incidentally contested over the course of two matches or legs, as they are normally known. The team with the most goals scored across the two legs advances to the final.

The final itself is known as the most lucrative football match in the world, mostly because the winners stand to earn anywhere between 50 to 90 million pounds, as a result of being a part of the Premier League. It’s a one-off, winner takes all match, if 90 minutes isn't enough to separate the teams then it’s down to 30 minutes of extra time, and ultimately the dreaded penalty shootout, if the teams still can’t be separated. The playoffs not only add some much-needed end-of-season drama, but also give hope to teams languishing in mid-table, that a late season surge could put them into the playoffs, and maybe even the Premier League. For me, in my humble opinion, it’s the best football league in Europe, if not the world.

Whenever a team wins the Scudetto, they wear this logo on their team shirts, as a mark of their status as champions.

Whenever a team wins the Scudetto, they wear this logo on their team shirts, as a mark of their status as champions.

2. Serie A

Serie A is Italy’s premier football league competition. To fans of European football, this may be quite a strange inclusion on this list as it contains some of the biggest clubs in the world. But its high degree of competitiveness may help to explain why the Italian national team has been so successful for the past few years. Unlike, for example, the Spanish league, where two teams have dominated for decades, claiming the Serie A title, or the Scudetto as it's known in Italy, is a realistic prospect for maybe seven or eight teams.

During the past decade or so, five teams have claimed the title with traditional Italian super-weights AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus competing with smaller clubs such as Roma, Lazio, Udinese, Napoli and Fiorentina, if you go back another 10 years or so, then the number of winners grows to seven with Napoli and Sampdoria claiming titles. Okay, so it’s not as wide as open the Championship, but for a top-quality league blessed with Champions League revenue, which can often distort competition it’s not too bad.

Incidentally, before the meteoric rise of the Premier League, Serie A was widely regarded as the best league in the world on account of the fact that it was home to many of the world’s best players, including Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Ruud Gullit and home-grown superstars such as Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero.

Ligue 1 has managed to remain open and competitive despite drastic increases in wages and revenue in recent years.

Ligue 1 has managed to remain open and competitive despite drastic increases in wages and revenue in recent years.

3. Ligue 1

Ligue 1 is the top league competition in France, and again is another league whose inclusion on this list could be hotly disputed. This argument centres on the fact that Olympique Lyon dominated the league between 2002 and 2008, claiming seven titles in a row. Before that though, it was undoubtedly the most open football league in Europe. In the decade from 1992 to 2002, an incredible nine different clubs claimed the title, with only Nantes managing to win it more than once.

In 2008, the dominance of Lyon came to an end, and Ligue 1 returned to its previous status as a wide-open and competitive league, with an incredible five different clubs claiming the title since, including Lille who hadn't won a championship since 1954 and Montpelier who claimed their first title last season, just three years after winning promotion. These are astonishing facts to digest, especially when you consider that just five clubs have won the English Premier League since its inception in 1992; equally astonishing is the fact is that if there had been an English equivalent to Montpelier, then Birmingham City would be the current Premier League champions. In stark contrast to the current French champions, Birmingham City have since returned to the Championship and are struggling both financially and sportingly

However, this brief return to open competitiveness is under threat from the gradual transformation of Paris Saint Germain into a European super club. This has been made possible by the investment of hundreds of millions of Euros by a consortium of Qatari businessmen, who intend to turn PSG into the biggest football club in Europe, if not the world. Already they have spent big money on top quality players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and were only denied a first title since 1994 by the aforementioned triumph of Montpelier last season. This year, they are favourites again, and despite an indifferent start, it’s likely they’ll be contesting the title at season’s end. If PSG do succeed in becoming a super club, then they will undoubtedly bring much-needed publicity to Ligue 1, but in doing so, France’s top football league will lose something that is far more important, its competitiveness and the astonishing mobility of its clubs. There is a danger that the dream of winning a title for the likes of Montpelier will soon end, and playing second fiddle to the likes of PSG will have to serve as the limit for their aspirations.

4. Danish Superligaen

In 1992, Denmark shocked the world by claiming victory at the European Championship, despite the fact they hadn't qualified for the tournament in the first place. They were only admitted due to the disqualification of Yugoslavia in the wake of the war that tore it and most of the rest of the Balkans almost totally apart.

The Superligaen, despite not having the sort of profile that even Ligue 1 enjoys, is still one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. Since its creation in 1991, seven teams have claimed the title, which may not sound like a lot over a 21-year period. But the fact that for most of its history, the Superligaen was contested by just 10 clubs makes the figure far more impressive than at first sight. Today, the number of teams competing stands at 12, and competitiveness is alive and well with FC Nordsjaelland claiming their first championship last year.

5. Football League of Ireland

In footballing terms, the Republic of Ireland is more famous for the star players it has produced down the years than its football teams and competitions. The likes of Roy Keane, Shay Given and Robbie Keane all made their name playing in the English Premier League and never played for an Irish club team. The quality of its club competitions and its teams, unfortunately, fall rather short of the elite, but still, it must be counted as one of the most competitive football leagues in the whole of Europe. Over the last 20 years, eight different teams have claimed the title, similar to Ligue 1 it’s a league where small clubs are consistently able to defy the odds and out-muscle bigger clubs to claim the title.

6. Swiss Super League

Switzerland is one of the smallest nations in all of Western Europe, and for decades has tried hard to make its mark on the international footballing stage. However, despite their best efforts which included co-hosting the 2008 European Championship with Austria, their most famous sporting export remains legendary tennis superstar, Roger Federer. But still, the Swiss can take some solace in the fact that they possess one of the most competitive football leagues in Europe.

In the last twenty years, seven different clubs have claimed the title, but in the last few years, however, the league has been dominated by two teams: FC Basel and FC Zurich, so their inclusion on this list could be disputed somewhat. But, when you consider the fact that Switzerland possesses one of the smallest football leagues in Europe (10 teams) seven different champions in twenty years is a pretty impressive figure.

© 2012 James Kenny


Hakan on February 04, 2019:

With a UEFA Cup 2000 (against Arsenal) and UEFA Super Cup 2000 (against Real Madrid) winner Galatasaray in the list, as well as big teams like Fenerbahce and Besiktas, I think Turkish Super League also should have been listed here.

FootballNut on December 17, 2015:

Football in my view has lost it's sole. Players seem to give less and less effort as each week goes by. Managers play left footed players on the right, and right footed players on the left, this style of play limits the amount of attacking players do.

If you watch games now you will see a player running down the wing, or the ball has been passed out to him/her on the wing and they will get level with the edge of the penalty box (but out wide) then turn back and play the ball into midfield which then goes back into defence then passed out to the player on the opposite wing, who will then get level with that side of the penalty box and turn back and pass the ball into midfield, then maybe via passing back into defence the ball will come back around to the player on the other wing (again).

Managers need to start playing left footed players on the left and right footed players on the right, this way wingers will attack defences and use skill to get passed them and have more confidence with crossing the ball on the by-line with their natural foot, rather than turning back every time they get level with the edege of the box and just constantly moving the ball from one wing to the other where players will not run past defenders in order to whip a ball across for the players in the penalty box.

Casper Ravnsted-Larsen on February 28, 2013:

I can imagine that info in English is hard to come by, definitely! And let me know if you have other questions, as I find it rather fascinating that someone outside Denmark is interested in something inside Denmark. As a small country, we are not so used to that... ;-)

Anyway, I have written this modest analysis, or what you want to call it, on the interesting debate about what 'real' football is:

(now I only hope that this comment will not be banned, as I am not trying to promote my own hub, but merely sharing thoughts with someone like-minded ;-) )

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 27, 2013:

Thank you very much for your input ravnstad. I appreciate the info about the Danish league, as it was actually quite hard to research, as most articles relating to competitive balance relate to the so called bigger leagues.

Casper Ravnsted-Larsen on February 27, 2013:

Thank you for sharing your views on European football. And as a Dane myself, I found it indeed very interesting, if not surprising, that you included the Danish league.

I agree; the Danish league has improved, especially during the last ten years, but I am not sure it is as equal as you put it. Let me elaborate...

In the early 2000s it was becoming a tendency that the Danish league would turn into something very similar to the Scottish league, totally dominated by the two Glasgow clubs Rangers and Celtic, with suburban, many times champions, Brøndby and relatively newly fused FC Copenhagen as the constant winners of the league.

However, Brøndby's last championship in 2005, by the way with the former Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus star, and current Swansea coach Michael Laudrup on the bench, seems to be the last one in a while. Ever since, they have been in huge crisis, which finally now, at midseason, has left them at the bottom of the league, facing relegation if nothing drastic happens.

This fact, that a former dominant club is having far worse concerns than fighting the local rivals for the title, left the league with only one potential winner, FC Copenhagen. But even they from time to time have a bad season with a change on the manager position and a few regular players leaving the team altogether allowed FC Nordsjælland to grap the title last year.

But the general picture shows that FC Copenhagen is at the moment THE aldominant club in Denmark, due to their slow yet safe build up of a sound business and solid management. Unfortunately, I see no similarities with the other 11 clubs in the league. They do run their operations relatively smoothly, all except Brøndby, but they just do not have the same size, the same money, the same chances of playing continental football/soccer, and thereby the same attractiveness for the good players. As a see it; somewhat a vicious circle - unless some money man suddenly places his trust in a Danish club.

Now then, a few remarks regarding the Italian league, which is, I agree, one of the best European leagues, especially if you look at it in a historical perspective. But it is not anymore, I think. And as a reason I think the Italian league basically has an image problem.

Italians have notoriously been known for playing defensive football/soccer, which means defending your goal and saving the point you already have from the beginning of the game are primary goals. Attacking is something you do, if you get the chance on a fast break.

That is how Italian teams have won their titles historically, and that is why, I think, they just got uninteresting for people during the 90s and the 00s when Barcelona, Real Madrid and some British clubs started showing the world how entertaining and beautiful attacking football/soccer can be played.

For this reason, a bit of the tv and sponsorship money disappeared from Italian football, and consequently they do not have one of the best leagues in the Europe anymore, they have a top 10 league.

However, this might change again, as it seems the world has had enough of Barcelonas tikitaka football/soccer, and tend to praise the more organised Italian and British team, when then beat them.

But enough out of me.

By the way, I have had the plan of writing about this last organised vs. attacking football topic myself, so do stop by to read it, once it is online.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 04, 2013:


Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on February 04, 2013:

Yes! Baltimore won! I'm a fan of their purple uniforms:)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 04, 2013:

Oh really, I like Baltimore, mostly because I'm a big fan of the TV series 'The Wire' hehe. Hope they won. :)

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on February 03, 2013:

San Francisco 49'ers and Baltimore Ravens. Go Ravens!

Basketball is also my favorite sport! MJ is my favorite player!! :)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 03, 2013:

Hi Linda, haha, shows how much I know about American Football, I didn't even know the Super Bowl was on. Who's in it this year? Out of the American sports, the only one I really developed a passion for was Basketball, mostly because of MJ. I played it as a kid, and enjoyed every minute of it. Strange to think that Basketball is the only pro sport that is 100% American and yet it's the most global out of the four. Thanks for popping by and no problem at all, glad to be of service.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on February 03, 2013:

Thank you James for introducing me to European Football, it sounds like your teams are just as competitive as the states. Interesting hub to read on Super Bowl Sunday!

thecollegeway on December 01, 2012:

Yes PSG's recent plunge into the transfer market is alarming. Hopefully they do not become a Ligue 1 powerhouse as that would ruin the competitiveness of the league. La Liga and the Premiership have become somewhat dull as you pointed out compared to what they used to be because of the likes of predictability and big spending clubs.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on December 01, 2012:

Good, because the last thing we want is Ligue 1 transforming into La Liga or the Premiership.

Richard-Murray on December 01, 2012:

OL and OM are knocking that out of the water. They are keeping up with PSG

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 30, 2012:

That's true, but the rise of PSG threatens to undermine the overall competitive balance of the league. Its a shame its not more popular, as its certainly more unpredictable than the Premier League. Who cares if Man U or City win it this season. How about somebody like West Brom or Swansea.

thecollegeway on November 30, 2012:

I agree with the inclusion of Ligue 1. Ligue 1 football is so exciting to watch as only a few points separate many of the teams placed near the top of the table compared with those near the bottom. There are not many other leagues in the world that contain such good amount of talent while still being able to keep all the league so competitive! Captivating football at its finest!

Richard-Murray on October 02, 2012:


the bundesliga will not

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on October 02, 2012:

Yep, I agree even in the age of business and commercialisation, great stories are still possible. Thanks for commenting.

Markos on October 02, 2012:

Remember when Apoel went into the Q.finals of the champioons league lots of people think it takes money to be succsessful but all it takes is a bit of belife and good fans and you can beat any team.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on October 02, 2012:

I agree with you on the Bundesliga, the atmosphere for domestic matches is always good, the clubs are all privately owned and they care about producing homegrown players rather than spending multi-millions. It's a shame it doesn't get more coverage worldwide, but then again I wouldn't want the Bundesliga to turn into the Premiership.

Markos on October 02, 2012:

I hate english football theres to much bussness

The fans (ultras) have more to do in the enjoyment of the of the game.

One of the best leagues is the Ukrainian Premier League or the Bundesliga Good teams , Great ultras.

Richard-Murray on August 31, 2012:

We shall see but Milan's owner isn't as wealthy. Oil barons have real money, financiers aren't as wealthy, plain and simple. if you have the money you can own. Revenue sharing , protects men not wealthy enough to own clubs to own clubs.

IF you can't handle owning a club cut costs till you can, sell or go bankrupt. pure capitalism

why is that wrong JKenny

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 30, 2012:

That does sound interesting Richard, perhaps the likes of Man City and Chelsea could take a leaf out of Milan's book. With FFP coming along shortly, maybe they'll have to.

I am actually a great admirer of the sports leagues in the USA, and I follow the NBA and NHL closely- I'd love it if the Premier was as wide open as the NHL or NFL, but I also love promotion/relegation so I wouldn't want it to become a closed shop like those. But maybe they could look into greater sharing of revenue, and while I know a salary cap isn't workable, maybe they could look at introducing some sort of luxury tax to curb big spending by big clubs.

Richard-Murray on August 30, 2012:

It is always a tight race in the championship, and congrats to the FA for seeing the premier league for what it is and molding the championship into a more even keeled race to the finish.

I think that balance between the championship and the premier league could be learned by sports leagues in the USA.

If you watch Juventus, which you will see in the UEFA CL you will see that not all Serie A clubs are defensive minded. but, all serie a clubs take defense seriously. Ask Taiwo , he couldn't cut it at Milan and moved to QPR, because in Italy the defensive mistakes accepted in the EPL aren't tolerated.

I don't know. French clubs like being development teams. Lets be honest, if you own a football club, either you are developmental or you are top tier in your area. No league with relegation and promotion and only a few champions leagues spots can be ranked with entirely trophy lifting clubs. France, Spain, and Italy for many reasons are filled with clubs that are developmental. Players come in , players come out.

I think what is going on at AC Milan is very interesting, Ibra, Thiago Silva, Cassano have all left. Nesta, Inzaghi, Seedorf, Van BOmmel have all left. This has turned Milan into a youth squad, essentially a developmental squad, full of players not yet at their peak.

I predict Milan is going to show the way forward by being a mega churner of talent.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 29, 2012:

Thanks aviannovice, football at times can be a pretty boring sport to watch, but when its good, its really good. Thanks for stopping by.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 29, 2012:

Not that I know a lot about this topic, but I am not totally ignorant. I would love to see more games.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 29, 2012:

Yes, the Premier League is pretty competitive and shock results do happen, but just not enough for me. I'd love it if the likes of Swansea and Everton were able to maintain their early season form deep into the season- that would be awesome! Thanks for popping by.

mmsu from Pakistan on August 29, 2012:

Epl comes first,then German league,then the Italian League,French then the Spanish one in terms of competitiveness.Nice hub mate!!Voted up!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 28, 2012:

Hi Richard, yes I became an admirer of Blackpool when they were in the Premier League, I loved how they were always willing to have a go, and gave their all against Man Utd on the final day when they were relegated. Last season, I wanted Birmingham to gain promotion, but after we lost to Blackpool in the playoffs, I temporarily switched my allegiance to Blackpool, because I wanted West Ham to lose, but unfortunately they didn't. This year, they look good for a return to the Premier League, and they destroyed Ipswich at the weekend. But there are so many good teams in the Championship, Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday look especially good this season.

I must admit that I don't watch much Serie A, due mostly to its defensive nature when it comes to tactics, which is why I tend to watch the English leagues, La Liga and the Bundesliga. This season, I've been watching more of Ligue 1, but like Serie A its very defensive and often lacks the tempo I'm used to seeing in England. But the PSG story fascinates me; as someone who loves an underdog, a part of me wants to see them fail. But hopefully, their rise in status will ensure that more French players actually stay in Ligue 1 rather than move abroad. Thanks for popping by Richard.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on August 28, 2012:

No problem Mhatter99, I used to be quite a passionate soccer fan, but my interest in the game has waned over the last few years. Mostly due to the predictable nature of the game, and the conduct of the players both on and off the pitch. Thanks for popping by.

Richard-Murray on August 28, 2012:

I became a fan of blackpool:)when they were in the EPL and support them to return. they will have to wait a year but have a good chance.:)

I love Serie A, and the reason why serie a has remained competitive is because of the coaching and the idealogy. In the EPL the biggest coaching error is a single idea. In italy, week in and week out, managers make tactical changes to try to exploit opposing teams, even if that means the team plays "boring defense" or plays "tiki taka" Tactically, teams don't change as much as in serie a and that is why giants like juventus and inter and milan can be caught out. I think it is so telling that PSG is mid table and OM and OL are top , right now. Ligue 1 is a spring of talent. when you consider french or french groomed players abroad i wonder if another country in uefa has more players in top clubs around than france.

great article

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on August 28, 2012:

Thank you for this report. I don't know why, but my interest in soccer has waned, since I stopped coaching and reffing.