Which Soccer League is the Best in the World?
In the forum discussion about the 2019 UEFA Champions League (insert link here), I commented that I was very happy to see an all English final (Liverpool vs Tottenham). And its been no secret that I am and have been a Manchester United fan for a long, long time. But a poster asked a a good question. Why was I so excited to see an all English final and was there some particular reason to have any allegiance to English soccer clubs? So with Sunday being Championship Sunday in the EPL (and the second place team be it Liverpool or Manchester City will set a league record for points by a second place team) lets dig into this.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
To reiterate my answer from the forum, there are several reasons why I am a fan of English soccer. In my early playing days, my first true goalkeeper coach was from England. He made a mark on my love of the game and for playing keeper. Second, back in those days (and yes I am dating myself) just about the only soccer you ever saw in the States was the English FA Cup Final. That game was shown on the old ABC Wide World of Sports program. There were a few games also shown on a UHF channel (see I am dating myself again) broadcast out of Washington D.C. that I was able to pick up, barely, with the good old rabbit ears (ok this is the last time I am dating myself).
The poster said he was fairly new to soccer and was just wondering if there was some reason why fans seem to follow English soccer more than others. In thinking about his question is seems that perhaps a more current and fan-wide answer might be prudent. So lets just look a bit deeper to try and answer the more general question. Just what league does have the best soccer on the planet?
As a caveat I am going to say right upfront that THE best soccer is really the UEFA Champions League. But that is a special entity and not one country’s league so they aren’t counted here. Second, I am limiting this to the big five European Leagues to keep this reasonably short and really there isn’t much argument that any other league would fall to #1. This is in no way a dis on the Brazilian or Argentinian Leagues. They are good too. This is in no way a dis on the Mexican League. Its a good one too. This is in no way a dis on the Eredivisie (Dutch), MLS (North American), or any other leagues either. They are all good quality leagues and fun to watch. But they aren’t in the same class as the Big 5. And if you look online these five leagues are almost universally the top five on everybody’s list.
To begin, in case your aren’t up on the Big 5 here they are in alphabetical order:
English Premier League
La Liga (Spain)
Ligue 1 (France)
Seria A (Italy)
So lets look at them from a perspective of a long time US soccer fan. What criteria would they use for their rankings? How would these Big 5 fare against each of those rankings? And in the end who comes out on top? There are lots of different criteria a fan could evaluate leagues against. Your’s may be different than mine. As you will see the criteria I use are a mixture of subjective and objective data.
Its hard, in this day of all things electronic to not factor in the media (including social media). Things have come a long way in this country. From almost zero coverage to literally daily coverage. Historically media coverage was dominated by the EPL. I suspect much of that was due to the close ties between the US and Great Britain. But newspapers and television covered EPL much more so than any other league. Now much has changed over the last 20 years. There is even a full time XM Sirrius radio channel dedicated to soccer. Newpapers, both national and local, cover soccer on a routine basis, and television has some type of soccer coverage every day too. Now if this were the only criteria then the MLS would have to rank right near the top. As our domestic league it gets a ton of media coverage, and deservedly so. But while MLS is getting better and better every season, its just not up there with the big leagues yet.
When it comes to the Big 5 you can find loads of coverage for all of those leagues. The NBC family of channels covers the EPL, the Fox family of channels covers the Bundesliga, ESPN covers the Serie A, BeIn covers La Liga and Ligue 1. ESPN also covers some additional matches from these leagues when they buy the rights from the prime broadcast rights holder.
So when it comes to media coverage you have to put the EPL and Bundesliga on top. They have multiple matches shown every week during their season.
We American fans do like our superstars and it doesn’t matter if you are talking Tom Brady in football, LeBron James in basketball, or Manny Machado in baseball. Pick a sport and there are a number of players so well known that they draw fans to watch them even if they aren’t die hard fans of that sport. The Big 5 are loaded with superstars with names recognized by even the most casual soccer fans. Most sports fans would recognize the guy above.
Bundesliga – Manuel Neuer (Germany), James Rodriguez (Colombia), Marco Reus (Germany), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Thiago (Spain), Emil Forsgerg (Sweden) and many others.
EPL – Jan Vertonghen (Belgium), David De Gea (Spain), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Paul Pogba (France), Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Harry Kane (England), Sergio Aguero (Argentina) and many others.
La Liga – Lionel Messi (Argentina), Luka Modric (Croatia), Antoinne Griezmann (France), Marcelo (Brazil), Karim Benzema (France), Luis Suarez (Uruguay) and many others.
Serie A – Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Dries Martens (Belgium), Kalidou Koulibay (France), Paulo Dybala (Argentina), Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia), and many others.
Ligue 1 – Mario Balotelli (Italy), Neymar (Brazil), Kylian Mybappe (France), Dani Alves (Brazil), Angel Di Maria (Argentina), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay) and many others.
All five of these leagues have a bunch of well know international stars and you could make an argument for any one of these leagues being on top. For pure star power I might give a bit of a nod to La Liga and if Ronaldo had not jumped to the Serie A then for sure it would be the Spanish league. The EPL follows close behind.
Money talks in sports and soccer is no different than the rest. The rich clubs stay at the top because they have the most money. In fact , in most soccer leagues there are no salary caps and the big clubs spend to fill their holes. Then they generate a ton of revenue. Then they go spend to fill their holes, Rinse and repeat. So when Ligue 1 Paris Saint Germain saw their need for a striker they just went out and purchased the best available player out there. Neymar for the tidy transfer fee of just short of $248M.
But it works, at least a bit, for soccer unlike most professional sports simply because of the vast number of players teams have to choose from. Its why a less than top club like Leicester City could win the EPL in the recent 2015-2016 season. But detractors point out that since the inception of the EPL in 1992 that only 6 clubs have won the championship.
Regardless of how one feels about the rich getting richer (or at least staying rich) the fact remains that the top clubs have the lions share of the money. When it comes to revenue the top 20 teams in the world shake out like this:
Ligue 1 – 1
La Liga – 3
Bundesliga – 3
Serie A – 4
EPL – 9
No matter how you slice it, when it comes to money the EPL rules the roost.
A good barometer of fan interest is certainly attendance. For a single club, Barcelona is on top. But the rest of the Spanish clubs lag behind them by a fair bit.
Some of the attendance (and maybe a lot of it) is driven by a countries culture but you still have to have at least a decent product to keep fans going to games. This category actually has some interesting data. The Mexican League attendance averages actually place it 4th in the world and the MLS finds itself in 8th. But per the caveats upfront they don’t count. So who do the Big 5 stack up against each other. Here are the rankings in the world with their average match attendance.
Bundesliga – 1st 43,302
EPL – 2nd 36,675
La Liga – 3rd 27,381
Serie A – 5th 22,967
Ligue 1 – 7th 21,556
So the Bundesliga wins this category and its not really close and as you can see there is a good drop between them and the EPL and another good drop between the EPL and La Liga.
US Players Overseas
There is one more criteria that needs to be considered, especially for soccer fans in the United States that don’t have a particular tie to a club outside the country. All the fans who grew up playing here and are strongly vested in the American game and players. That being where the top US players are playing. Probably the most notable US Men’s National Team player overseas right now is Christian Pulisic. While he is currently finishing up his season with Dortmund in the Bundesliga, he was transferred officially during the January transfer window then loaned back for the rest of the season. So he is going to be in a Chelsea uniform as of May 19th.
This one is a bit muddled because just who do you count? For the sake of this discussion I will limit it to current players who have been called into the US MNT at least once and are still on the depth charts.
That breakdown looks like this:
Bundesliga – 8
EPL – 4 (Pulisic was counted here)
La Liga – 1
Ligue 1 – 1
Serie A – None
So the Bundesliga wins this category fairly easily followed by the EPL. None of the rest of the leagues really factor in here.
Overall League Competitiveness
This criteria is just how it sounds. On any given week how likely is it that a bottom team can beat a top team? How closely matched are the best teams? How bad are the bad teams? When the worst team plays the best team is it still watchable?
This one is about as subjective as you can get and my view is going to be a bit stereotypical. But top to bottom its pretty hard to look anywhere but the EPL. In general the play is more technical in La Liga. They are highly skilled but they are also happy to pass the ball around at length to merely maintain possession. Of course, the flip side is that the opponents can’t score if they don’t have the ball. The EPL tends to be a faster paced more attacking style and that has plenty of appeal. And they are a deep league. The top 10 teams are all very good and can beat any team in the world on a given day. And the middle of the pack teams still are solid sides and can be dangerous if overlooked.
The Serie A tends to be a bit more defensive in style. Some teams like Juventus (with Ronaldo) have started to play a bit more of an attacking style but Italian soccer has tended to be fairly defensive historically. Many find this a bit less watchable than other leagues. But for fans who love tight close fought defensive matches its hard to beat. The Bundesliga seems to be more about the actual club for its style and less of an overall league approach. Some teams (Bayern Munich and Dortmund) play very much an attacking game. Others not so much. tIs hard for me to really judge the French league as I simply don’t get to see much of them.
But there is on measure which is pretty telling and that is how many automatic berths in the UCL are allocated to these leagues.
EPL, Serie A, and La Liga each have 4. The Bundesliga gets 3 and Ligue 1 gets 1.
Oh, and one last point. The EPL and La Liga are tied for the most goals/match across all their matches. In a sport where its tough to score, extra credit has to be given here.
So all things considered I give the nod here to the EPL.
Every fan has lots to choose from when it comes to watching soccer these days. And there are plenty of reasons for fans to choose a particular league or club. But for me, all things considered, the EPL is the top dog.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.