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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Betting: La Liga
- More from Graham Hunter
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.