The Most Competitive Football Leagues in Europe
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 steam roll 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 leagues 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.
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 finishes 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 are 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.
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 its 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.
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 1992-2002, 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 most for 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 8 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