Paddy Power

Premier League is not a patch on Spanish football. Here’s why…

by Paddy Power Admin | December 13, 2012

Graham Hunter byline

In a controversial column, Graham Hunter tells the Paddy Power Blog why Spanish football and La Liga rules in style over the Premier League

“Mickey Mouse league, Spain. Only two teams in it.”

That was the comment on Paddy Power’s Facebook page on Monday morning. The contributor didn’t sign himself as Mr J Cyclops of Tunbridge Wells — but he might as well have done.

Perhaps it’s because it came at a time when the six male nominees who will take the stage during January’s Ballon D’Or ceremony are all either Spanish or work in Spain that the feedback comment caused apoplexy in the Paddy Power office.

Hats off to Andrés Iniesta, Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Vicente Del Bosque, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho. I’d call that dominance.

Or maybe it seemed so out of place when Spain has eclipsed every other football nation by winning back-to-back continental titles with the World Cup squeezed nicely in between?

Oh, and should I mention early that since 2000 Spain has produced seven Champions League finalists and five winners?

You want Uefa Cup and Europa League, do you?

Ok, of the last 10 Uefa finals, seven of the 20 finalists have been from Spain, again five winners.

La Rojita are reigning Uefa European U21 Champions, have produced seven finalists in the last 11 U19 tournaments, including six wins, and just to ice the cake, five finalists of the last 10 U17 Championships… with two winners.

West Indies, Micheal Schumacher, David Rudisha

THE GREATS: Count Spain alongside the West Indies, Schumacher, and Kenyans like David Rudisha

All in all it’s a blanket dominance to put West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 80s, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Kenyan distance athletes and the All Blacks (forever!) to shame.

Impressive, organised and well marketed though the English Premier League may be, it isn’t a patch on Spanish football. Not even within touching distance.

But there are some, seduced by the packaging who endlessly need to put Spanish football down so that they can feel better (more smug or less worried, I wonder?) about English football.

The Premier League is better television

Right here and now let me make clear my acceptance that much of this ‘good, better, best’ argument in sport needs boxing’s ‘pound for pound’ unit of measurement applied. Even then it’s often subjective.

For example even though those facts I’ve just listed pummel all other arguments into the ground, overall, I’m full of respect for football in England.

Compared to La Liga it is televised better, it’s more modern, the scheduling is better, the stadia are better, racism is something to be sought out and driven out rather than complacently accepted, and there will always be some who enjoy vaudeville, melodrama and ‘oh-no-he’s-not-oh-yes-he-is!!’ more than opera, ballet, arthouse cinema and Classic FM.

What’s more, one of the reasons Spanish football is so comprehensively better than British football right now is fundamentally thanks to… British football.

Cazorla, Reina and Spain

REIGN IN SPAIN: Cazorla and Reina have been successful imports as Spain taste international glory

Over the last 10 years there has been a wholesale movement of Spanish players to Scotland and England.

Phase A was when those countries went fishing, tentatively, for bargain players (those right at the end of their career or Segunda Division talents who weren’t being paid their wages and thus were ripe for plucking) or uncut gems like Mikel Arteta, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Piqué.

Phase B has been the realisation that the majority of Spanish footballers will have a technical and tactical quotient far above their UK equivalents, will probably be cheap (Michu anyone?) and on lower wages.

But back to Phase A.

Initially, those first Spanish exports found our lifestyle, our playing style and, let’s face it, our cuisine, hard to adapt to.

Some of their key conclusions were that in the UK the referee will blow for far fewer fouls, that we have a stronger sense of ‘fair play’and even your own team-mates will tell you to ‘get up off your arse’if you are rolling around in mock agony or diving for penalties.

But as the tough kids shone, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Roberto Martinez, Alvaro Arbeloa, Rafa Benitez, Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres at Liverpool they all brought home the message that in England you play hard, play fair and give absolutely everything.

That fan culture demands you run and try till your sweat glands are empty whether the team is winning, drawing or losing 5-0.

They, in a sense, were missionaries and what they preached when back amongst team-mates, national team coaching staff and the media was that UK football possessed something beautiful — toughness and a constant hunger to be mentally and physically strong enough to be victorious.

Pep Guardiola

This was new to Spain and once the message was accepted, assimilated and applied here we began to see a fearful hybrid — modern La Liga players who were technically brilliant, could pass a camel through the eye of a needle, produced sleight-of-boot, were tactically smart and, now, were mentally and physically tough too.

So, Spain (club and country) is on a trophy winning spree of which England (and everyone else) can only dream.

Two-team league? Don’t make me laugh…

Spain, for a generation, has had a philosophy that all its age-level teams will play a brand of football and use formations which are tied to how the senior team is playing.

It’s a production line and the factory is called Las Rozas Ciudad del Fútbol. The Spanish federation has had its St George’s Park for just under a decade — quite an advantage.

Spain has vastly more professionally accredited coaches than England, and produces wave after wave of technically sublime players who now know that you have to be as ferociously tough as Piqué or Alonso and who tend not to get into tabloid scrapes over drink, drugs, girlfriends, air rifles or £20 notes.

But, as Mr Cyclops in Tunbridge Wells is presumably still fuming right now: “Spain is a two-team league!”

That’s the insult thrown in an attempt to belittle La Liga.

First of all it’s debatable how different it is from England.

Manchester City only began to remember what the title was, let alone became potential winners, once it was nicely plumped up with petrodollars. Nothing wrong with that. Manchester City are an exciting new force — especially now that they’ve hired Spaniards as Chief Executive, Director of Football and big boss on the pitch (David Silva).

But remove them from the equation and compare Spain’s title winners with England’s title winners since 2000. La Liga boasts Deportivo La Coruña, Valencia (twice) plus Real Madrid and Barcelona.

England has just three: Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Chelsea, by the way, are owned by someone with a personal worth meaning that the debts run up by Barcelona and Real Madrid would just be loose change to him. And if Arsenal win a trophy in May it’ll be their first in eight years.

More to La Liga than El Clasico clubs

No club in Spain has Chelsea or Manchester City’s wealth. Arsenal are a club in search of new impetus — pound for pound the English league has been utterly dominated by one outfit, Manchester United, since 1996.

What’s more, those who mock La Liga because “any team can beat any other” in England but “Madrid and Barcelona win easy” in Spain are ignoring large flotillas of facts.

What about when Sporting Gijon took Jose Mourinho’s nine-year unbeaten home record by winning at the Bernabéu? Or when Numancia, a club small enough to fit in your pocket, beat Pep Guardiola’s Barça at the beginning of their treble-winning season?

In recent years Getafe, Levante, Real Zaragoza, Osasuna, Sporting, Espanyol, Villarreal, Hercules and Real Betis have all taken scalps against Real Madrid and Barça.

La Liga is competitive. It’s just that both of the Clasico clubs are very, very good.

During my 10 years in Spain, 12 different teams have qualified for the Champions League slots in La Liga’s top four positions – what’s the equivalent record in England?

And while these so-called ‘no mark’ also-ran Spanish clubs might not be capable of winning the title they have also proved hellishly difficult for the rest of Europe to defeat.

Think of Sevilla winning back-to-back Uefa Cups, and Atletico Madrid winning two out of three Europa Leagues, each time defeating the reigning Champions League holder — Inter and Chelsea in the subsequent Uefa Supercup Final, Espanyol and Athletic Club in the Uefa final, Getafe in the semi final, Villarreal eliminating Manchester United from their Champions League group, and so on and so on.

I fully understand fans of United, Stoke, West Ham, Everton — name the club you want — who care passionately about local rivalries and about scraping together the money for a season ticket and a couple of away trips. Perhaps continental football feels less important, perhaps they simply don’t like the less robust, more scientific style.

Fair play. I have no bone to pick with that.

But I’ve lost count of the top, top professionals in both coaching and playing in the UK who, when we meet, want to know more about the science behind Spanish footballers and coaches being that good.

SOCCER: FIFA Ballon dÕOr finalists

The shining English talents in management and those who still play top level, take in or tape Spanish football whenever they can.

They revere Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, Isco, Alonso, Ramos, Soldado, Llorente, Thiago, Ronaldo, Rossi, Falcao and Villa, home-bred brilliance and the cream of world soccer, having already imported Silva, Mata, Torres, Reina, Cazorla, Michu, Pablo, Romeu, José Enrique, Kun Aguero, Touré, Azpilicueta, Suso, Rodolfo Borrell, Rafa Benitez, Roberto Martinez, Chico, Cuellar, Arteta and many more.

Just one more thought — who’s THE most sought-after coach in world football right now.

Clue: he lives in Manhattan but he’s not American.

What really matters in football…

Okay, by now you’ve twigged that I was charged with producing a provocative, or at least thought-provoking column.

What’s more, only a fool or a PR man would argue that there isn’t a great deal which, if transplanted from England, wouldn’t automatically improve the infrastructure, health, wealth and marketabillity of La Liga.

Messi and RVP

TWO GOOD: Messi and RVP represent the best of both leagues

But what romantics like you and I really care about is the thrill of a player beating his opponent one on one, the passing movement which zips the ball from boot to boot as if it were heat-seeking and laser controlled.

The genius of invention, the routine of the ball being a footballer’s friend.

No matter what the men in grey suits argue at the Emirates Stadium right now, it’s not about being there or thereabouts all the time — it’s about vein-bulging, adrenalin-pulsing excitement, gasps, roars, fun, skill… and trophies.

Winning regularly, and winning with style.

Ladies and Gentleman, in the red corner and STILL the champion of the world… Spanish football.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight on La Liga can regularly be seen and heard on TV and radio. He also writes for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football. Follow Graham on twitter here.

Your comments and views


Leave a comment
  1. Roland osei said on December 13, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    Nice and informative piece!

  2. elflaco said on December 13, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Graham Hunter > Most Humans

  3. Paul said on December 13, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    Hunter eats raw steak for breakfast. He kills it on telly on La Liga. Thanks for the comment, sir

  4. Burnett Accam said on December 13, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    Shuttered!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! KO!!!!!!!

  5. John Edwards said on December 13, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    like watching paint dry

  6. james dean said on December 13, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    Forgetting city on the list of english winners?

  7. Paul Adey said on December 13, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    and blackburn :D

  8. Paul said on December 13, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    Nice paint, John Edwards. Silky

  9. robert walsh said on December 13, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    The reason why Spain are the dominant force in world football is because the modern game is perfect for their style. i.e. no tackles allowed and diving is rewarded. No league is better than the others in general terms. If you want intensity you watch premier league. Seria a teams are amazing to watch for defensive organisation of that’s your thing. Spain technique wise is brilliant.

  10. Michael said on December 14, 2012 @ 12:10 am

    @ James Dean. No, he didn’t. Read it again. You too, Paul Addey – Blackburn haven’t won the PL in the period that he mentions (2000 to the present).

    Anyway, great article. I always wondered how those that claimed La Liga was a two horse race neglected to look at Chelsea and United’s dominance of recent years in England. I always consoled myself with the fact that I was watching a superior brand of football. Sadly, that might be about to change as many Spanish clubs find themselves in serious debt. The TV money allocation really does need a serious review.

  11. Paul said on December 14, 2012 @ 8:02 am

    Good stuff Michael

  12. Jack Heraghty said on December 14, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    Skill level fantastic…first etc..
    but the rest!! acting…no million passes to score a goal!!..glorified 5 a sides most games…and what about the half empty grounds.

  13. Paul said on December 14, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    Fair point, Jack, mostly. Glorified five-a-side a bit harsh.

  14. Michael said on December 14, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    With all due respect, is defending in England any better? Arsenal letting in 8 last year against an average United side, Chelsea haemorrhaging goals in Europe, Philippe Senderos, etc… PL defending has seriously deteriorated in the past two or three seasons.

    I’ll agree that diving is an annoying aspect of the Spanish game. Still, as a Spurs fan, I wouldn’t exactly say that players like Bale are saints either. Ditto for Suarez and co. (and, yes, that includes British players!).

    Half-empty (half full in an optimist’s eyes) are a result of 25% unemployment in the country. Anyway, recent average attendances are very similar in both leagues (34,000 versus 30,000). Both are miles behind the Bundesliga by the way.

    Do you prefer to watch a more direct game? Fair enough, but the likes of Stoke wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I like to see players playing in a way that I couldn’t replicate with my friends on a Sunday morning. Purely personal, of course. It would be worth noting however that the more successful English sides have adopted a more possession-based, ‘continental’ style of football.

  15. elflaco said on December 14, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    There’s no basis for most of those statements.
    Diving and play acting is prevalent in the Premier League too – sometimes by Spanish players, but not exclusively – hence the current debate around diving and the sudden rash of cards from referees (often making incorrect judgements) attempting to stamp it out.

    To say there is no defending is completely groundless. How is defending graded? Number of successful tackles? Blocked shots? Clearances? The premier league had 16 more goals in total than La Liga last season. Does this mean that premier league teams are marginally better at attacking or are La Liga defences actually 1.5% better?

    In terms of passing, from a purely visual perspective, Arsenal have a recent history of overplaying and Swansea under Brendan Rodgers took boredom to whole new levels, passing for passing’s sake. Last season Real Madrid were the epitome of direct football without resorting to the long-ball tactics of Stoke. Guardiola continually adapted his system, which led to an even more possession-based game in the latter end of his spell at Barca, but Vilanova has returned to a more incisive style of play (much like Laudrup – another La Liga graduate – has done at Swansea).

    Stadium attendances can’t be used as an indicator of the standard of a league either as this could be due to a number of factors.
    Maybe Spanish people aren’t as well-off as English people?
    While teams like Vallecano and Getafe play in front of smaller crowds at home games, this can be attributed in part to the fact that they are competing with Real and Atletico in terms of appeal (the Getafe President is/was a season ticket holder at Real Madrid during his tenure at Getafe). While Norwich have very high attendances due to good community relations, they are surely also helped by the fact that fans would need to travel large distances to find other half-decent teams.
    Villarreal during their time in the top flight had a high average attendance which was made even more impressive given that the town has a population of c51,000 and isn’t too far from Valencia.
    Sevilla’s attendances dropped off when a large number of fans began boycotting the games in a protest against the club president.
    Some La Liga games are also played at a time of day that isn’t conducive to sitting in the scorching sun, something that isn’t generally a concern in Manchester. Attending matches with a 10pm kick-off might not be ideal for a lot of people either.
    English clubs also have the benefit of day-trippers. The likes of Liverpool can rely on Irish people to fill some seats and United always have Irish people making a pilgrimage (which explains why most of the accents in interviews of fans outside Old Trafford are Irish). Making the trip to Spain is more expensive and the League administrators only arrange fixtures a few days in advance, meaning fans find it very difficult to attend away games.
    The average attendances at Premier League games aren’t necessarily running at 100% either, with Wigan, Sunderland and Villa consistently play in front of large swathes of plastic.

  16. Smoggie said on December 14, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    All I know is, you can’t get a decent Cornish Pasty or a cup of watery Bovril at any one of these poncey Spanish grounds.
    If sitting in the half time sunshine with grilled cheese on bell pepper and a jug of cheap Rioja with orange peel in it is your thing, well good luck to you Pedro, but give me a pint of Directors Ale in a plastic cup and a bacon roll any day

  17. freddiemays said on December 15, 2012 @ 4:36 am

    “Just one more thought — who’s THE most sought-after coach in world football right now.

    Clue: he lives in Manhattan but he’s not American.”

    Obviously you mean Pep Guardiola. I have absolutely no idea why he is so sought after. None whatsoever. Most sought after?? Er, Jose Mourinho anyone?

    Guardiola was manifestly lucky to inherit such a good, no GREAT bunch of players.

    And yet he still managed to lose the league to Real Madrid last season. Had Mourinho had Barcelona’s players and Guardiola had Real Madrid’s players then Mourinho’s Barca would have won the league by 15 points. And certainly not have lost it!

    Time will show us how good he is. For me, I suspect Guardiola will go the same way as Frank Rijkaard. There’s no evidence yet to suggest he is any better. See how good he is with a set of mortals shall we? I desperately hope Chelsea get him in because I will sell their points and lay them in every competition they play.

  18. charlie said on December 15, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    utter drivel

  19. Jack Heraghty said on December 16, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    Hi Paul..point taken, but i think you know where i am coming from. The game i love is going to be ruined if the games administrators have their way, there are so many facits to this game that are been eroded…you can’t tackle in the modern game… if you are milli second late you are off..just because some cheat is rolling around on the floor!! Who wants to see every second game 10 v 11…not me for sure.

  20. Jack Heraghty said on December 16, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    The point is Michael…the way football is going it will soon be a non contact sport..there has to a place in the game for: great tacklers,heart, passion, the days of the types of players i love will soon be gone.

    If you want to watch a league where all the teams are playing the same way..fine…but i love the variety of tactics in our league including Stoke..even if i prefer my team to play the more expansive game.

    In very general terms the games administrators want a non contact sport with little or no tackling and lots passing and lots of goals,just not my cup of tea…must be my age i guess(55).

  21. Jack Heraghty said on December 16, 2012 @ 1:36 pm


  22. Michael said on December 16, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

    Jack: I don’t like the shift towards a non-contact sport either. It’s even happening at grass-roots level, where players are going down easily and feigning contact. That’s my biggest gripe with football. But it’s not solely a Spanish problem, consigned only to La Liga. The situation in England, Germany and Italy is exactly the same.

    As for homogeneity in Spanish passing style… That’s not quite true, either. The current champions are at their deadliest on the counter attack. They can certainly pass the ball about better than most but it’s not their primary strength. Ditto Bilbao, who last year tore Man United to shreds with a combination of slick passing, hard work and the physicality of Llorente up front.

  23. Paul said on December 16, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    @Michael – think you’re bang on with those comments

  24. Michael said on December 17, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    Thanks Paul.

  25. KF said on December 18, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    I’m more inclined to this view than that of charlie (even though I don’t like Mourinho – he started things off at Chelsea, too, I suppose).

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  28. Malappapper said on January 5, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    No defending? EPL and La Liga goalscoring averages are almost identical? What on earth are you referring to? have you ever watched a Spanish league game other than the occasional Classico?

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