Commentary

The myth of European soccer's supremacy

European club soccer, it's often reported on both sides of the Atlantic, is vastly superior to and more exciting than Major League Soccer. In terms of which leagues offer more quality, it's not a fair comparison given the sums of cash involved. In terms of which is more exciting, the lines are far more blurred, and it's worth taking a look at where the major European leagues stand with just a few weeks of the 2018-19 season left to play.

In Italy, Spain and France, the league winners have been a foregone conclusion for several weeks, even months. Juventus is 20 points clear in Serie A with seven games to play, and are heading for their eighth successive championship. Paris Saint-Germain are in an identical position in La Ligue, to make it six titles out of the last seven. Barcelona nailed any doubts about its imminent 26th LaLiga title on Saturday when it finished off closest rival Atlético Madrid with a 2-0 victory, taking them 11 points clear with seven games left. Any sporadic scraps of tension are down to the fight for European spots or to avoid relegation.

A radio report on Germany before the weekend celebrated the fact that the Bundesliga title this season is finally something more than a one-horse race, Bayern Munich having cantered away with the shield for the last six seasons. Countries around the world tuned in for the Bavarians' home game with leader Borussia Dortmund on Saturday night, with just two points separating the teams. What they saw was indeed quality soccer, but only from Bayern, which was 4-0 up by halftime, and 5-0 by the end (by which times countries around the world had switched off). Although the German title race is far from over, it was clear from this hopelessly slanted match-up who the best team in the country is, and who still deserves to be champion.

There's another side to this supposed excitement in leagues with as yet undecided titles. For the huge majority of German fans, it's irrelevant whether Bayern or Borussia ends up champion, and that also applies to the two-horse race in England between Liverpool and Manchester City. It's only the media that's trying to tell us how exciting this all is. If you're not invested in either of these teams, it perhaps comes down to which side you dislike the most. If at all. In my case, I have little regard for all four of these teams, for reasons that couldn't possibly interest you. So I resent being constantly told how exciting it all is.

Let's go back to European soccer in the 1970s, when everything was better, but when of course it was also much worse - the playing surfaces, the stadiums, the leniency toward foul play, and the fan culture of violence and racism (oh, hang on ... as the last week has shown yet again, Europe's still getting its house in order on this matter a half century on). There was, though, an element of something that was much more exciting - the sense of competition. In England at the end of the 1971-72 season, Derby County finished with 58 points (under the old two-points-for-a-win system), one point ahead of Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City. When Derby won it again three years later, it was almost as close as it just edged Liverpool, Ipswich and Everton. Between 1967 and 1973, seven different clubs were English champions in as many years.

In terms of tension about who's going to win, watching European soccer is now as exciting as watching the property market. That is, the winners will be those with the most cash, and that was a result of the biggest clubs pushing to reform the European Champions Cup into the European Champions League in the early 1990s, with the aim of amassing revenue and creating globally marketable brands. There will be a very occasional exception (Leicester City in 2016 as English Premier League winners) that only serves to highlight what a stitch-up the sport has become. Even in smaller leagues such as Scotland, Austria and Switzerland, teams such as Celtic and Salzburg - who are consistently woeful in European competition - have the financial advantage to tediously rack up consecutive domestic titles.

So while MLS is not (yet) going to recommend itself to a wider international audience, be thankful that it's not plagued with so much capital that most of the competitive element has been squeezed out of the trophy hunt in favor of the biggest and most ruthless operators. In MLS it would certainly be nice to see more consistently strong clubs emerging from the ever-expanding pack (every league needs a few teams to really boo), but in the meantime be happy that when it comes down to the final weeks of the season, most of the teams are not already thinking about the next.

Incidentally, some of the most eagerly awaited games in the English domestic season now come from the promotion playoffs in the second, third, fourth and fifth tiers, introduced in the late 1980s to extend fan interest and reduce the number of dead games at the season's end. They were decried at the time as being unfair to those teams who would previously have gained automatic promotion. Yet they bring attention and moments of glory to clubs and players normally overshadowed by the perennial big brands. Calls to abolish the playoffs are no longer heard.

Playoffs. I wonder where the English got the idea for that?

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

11 comments about "The myth of European soccer's supremacy".
  1. Kent James, April 8, 2019 at 3:52 p.m.

    I am of a mixed mind about this; the question becomes do you want a competiive league, or a team that can compete against teams from other leagues, because it is hard to have both.  While I like having a competitive league (to make the regular season worth watching) I have to admit, watching the rich clubs that dominate their domestic leagues and have loads of the most skilled players in the world can be beautiful.  The obvious solution is to have those teams play each other every week (a true Champions League).  The obvious problem with that is taking those teams away from their domestic leagues.  I don't know if that would mean a loss of interest from the outside world in watching those domestic leagues, or of the fans of the other clubs in the domestic leagues would be happier (since they'd now have a chance to win a title) or unhappier (since their clubs would no longer get to play the big teams). It is truly a conundrum.  


    The other problem (for non-European leagues) with the current system is with the best club teams being in Europe, they suck up all the best talent in the world (since they can pay the highest wages), which is nice for the Europeans (and the TV audience) but frustrating for the non-Europeans, since once they develop some great talent, they leave.  This is clearly a problem for the development of the MLS.  But again, short of capping how much teams can spend on their players, not sure what can be done about it (or if anything should be done about it).  Another conundrum!

  2. beautiful game replied, April 8, 2019 at 4:01 p.m.

    Quality and competition is what makes any leagu stand-out. As for MLS, IMHO, little consistency quality and thus more competitive. Just because Juve, i.e., is a foregone league champion a/o the new Year, doesn't indicate that it demolished every league opponent. To insinuate that the league contenders don't waste any sweat and suffer during many games is an unfair point of view. I rather watch quality, than a rugby-style game of kamikaze.   

  3. R2 Dad, April 8, 2019 at 4:57 p.m.

    C'mon, Ian--were the kids on your lawn again?

    MLS isn't a terrible league, and Yes, parity is great for the Neutral. The most important thing about our domestic league is the potential--that in the very very distant future, when there are humans on Mars, MLS MIGHT one day have dozens of excellent teams, with academies that really develop kids, real derbies, and the soccer will be a joy to behold. We will not see it in my lifetime.

    On the other hand, these Euro leagues still do have suspense and joy. How much fun has it been to slag the Real Madrid bandwagoneers for their awful, pathetic season after 3 CL Final victories in a row? To watch Zidane finally leave a team at the right time and stick it to Perez and let him twist in agony for 9 months? To emphasize that players and coaches win titles, not suits? And I don't even follow La Liga. Ajax might beat them this year! The schadenfreude has been fun.

    Dortmund appears dead and buried, but it may yet go down to the wire. The Bundesliga is bad because every Hummels and Gorezka want to play in Munich instead of going abroad, simultaneously weakening everyone else and strengthening BM. Same for PSG and Ligue 1. Torino will never be Juve, but parity-driven TV contracts can help fix the inequities all over UEFA. That doesn't require playoffs, but would start to address this problem with the haves vs have-nots.


  4. uffe gustafsson, April 8, 2019 at 4:59 p.m.

    Of all the four big European leagues, the EPL still is the most competitive league when talking about competition for the trophy.
    yes Man C seem like the big boy but you have Man U, Liverpool, arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea all competing for the crown every year.

  5. Bob Ashpole, April 8, 2019 at 5:42 p.m.

    When people rave about the superiority of European football, they invaribly are talking about a couple of teams that spend ridiculous amounts on players. I have yet to hear someone extoll the virtues of the soccer played by clubs in the bottom half of the tables.

    I strongly suspect that the soccer in some South American countries is superior. 

  6. John Soares, April 9, 2019 at 10:10 a.m.

    Take away the games that involve the top 4 to 6 teams in these countries and the quality is not much better than MLS. Certainly not as good as many South American teams.
    Even worse the attendance is well below MLS. 
    Americans would quickly loose interest if a "known" 20 out 24 teams were out of the race before the first game of the season.

  7. Ben Myers, April 9, 2019 at 1:03 p.m.

    What about the overall QUALITY of play in the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga?  Even the teams low in the table play some very good soccer, hard to match elsewhere in the world.  Having seen little of the Erdeviste and Primeira Liga, I can only imagine that they, too, have pretty high quality of play.  On the odd occasions when I get to watch the top South American club teams, they, too, play at a high standard.  Several years ago, I was a spectator at a match in the Israeli pro league.  The standard of play there was superior to our own MLS, which is no surprise because tiny Israel and the United States are ranked within spitting distance of one another by FIFA.

    Sorry, but MLS, Liga MX and the other pro leagues cannot and probably will never match up to the quality of play in Europe.  Quality of play is what counts when talking about European soccer supremacy.  And the four semi-finalists in the last World Cup were European, another indicator of how good the soccer is on the continent.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, April 9, 2019 at 5:12 p.m.

    Quality of play is the reason I prefer not to watch the EPL. 

    If you praised the level of play in the UEFA Champions League, I would agree. 

  9. John Bauman, April 9, 2019 at 5:27 p.m.

    RIGHT!!!??? Is this why the European has-beens come here and the best of our best go there?
    You should watch Bundesliga or any if the PL games to see what our players need to learn.  And don't blame money.  If the richest country in the world wanted to excell they would find it and spend it.  vis.  MLB salaries??  

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, April 9, 2019 at 6:38 p.m.

    Professional soccer success is all about money, John. You do realize John that the EPL is mostly foreign players. Those players didn't "learn" the game in England. There is nothing to stop MLS from buying those same players and coaches. The only thing stopping MLS is their business plan, which I think is very smart. 

  11. James Madison, April 9, 2019 at 11:18 p.m.

    So much for the future of US youth soccer development.

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