English teams ousted from Europe’s elite

In a painfully close tie, Arsenal have been beaten in the Champions League, leaving no Premiership teams in the quarterfinal for the first time in 17 years. Is English football in crisis?

Today, figures from Europe’s top football clubs will gather in Nyon, Switzerland to learn who they will face in the final eight of this year’s Champions League. Three Spanish teams will be represented, along with two from Germany and one each from Italy, Turkey and France. But clubs from one nation are glaringly absent this year – and that nation is England.

For the first time since 1996, not one Premiership side has earned a place in the quarterfinals of Europe’s most prestigious competition. The division that was once habitually referred to as ‘the best league in the world’ has been eclipsed.

Arsenal came within inches of a heroic comeback on Wednesday night that would have squeezed them through to the final eight. But manager Arsene Wenger is in no doubt about the significance of the result: ‘We accept,’ he said, ‘that the rest of Europe has caught us.’

Fans have other concerns besides the failings of the top teams. Some clubs have become the playthings of free-spending billionaires, while others are milked by businessmen for easy cash. The gap between haves and have-nots is growing, while ticket prices rise to giddy levels of up to £62 per game.

Many say it is time for change. But which foreign league offers the best alternative?

The obvious choice is Spain’s La Liga, home to Europe’s two most formidable clubs. Barcelona and Real Madrid, the royalty of club football, claimed ten out of eleven places in Fifa’s team of the year.

But this dominance comes at the expense of almost every other Spanish team. By monopolising money from television rights, Real and Barcelona dwarf everybody beneath them – so much so that both finished more than thirty points ahead of last season’s third-placed team.

For a more egalitarian alternative, many look to the German Bundesliga. Here tickets can be bought for as little as £10, while fans are given free transport on matchdays. Famously atmospheric stadiums are packed every week, and clubs are at least 51% owned by their fans.

Leagues ahead

To many football lovers, the Bundesliga is the promised land. Its vibrant, financially stable clubs are run in the interests of supporters, and in the past ten years, five different teams have won the league. Competitive, high quality, fan-friendly football, they say, and all at affordable prices – what’s not to like?

That’s all very well, say Spanish supporters. But football, like any sport, is ultimately about winning, and the last time a German club ruled Europe was in 2001. Since then Barcelona have won the Champions League three times and broken almost every record in the book. La Liga is the home of champions, they say: if the Premiership wants lessons, that is where it should look.

You Decide

  1. Which is the best sporting competition in the world? Why?
  2. Do you get more satisfaction from a closely-fought defeat, or a one-sided victory?

Activities

  1. Think of a sporting event you enjoyed and write a report of it as though you had witnessed it live. What made it particularly enjoyable to watch?
  2. Design your perfect sports league. Think about how the competition would be structured, how the teams would be funded and what role fans would play.

Some People Say...

“It’s winning that counts, not just taking part.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares which league is the best in Europe?
Plenty of people: an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide follow football, and European leagues are by far the most popular. But even if you don’t, there is a broader question here: should we place more emphasis on the end result of a system or the conditions it produces?
I don’t see how that’s relevant outside sport.
Well, here’s one example: the countries of the world are usually ranked by their economic output, or GDP. But some policymakers now suggest that we should instead focus on the quality of life each country offers instead (sometimes called Gross National Happiness). Some focus on overall success while others value general well being – just like in the debate about football!

Word Watch

Champions League
The Champions League (formerly ‘European Cup’) pits the highest-placed teams in Europe’s football leagues against one another to determine which is the continent’s best club. Historically the most successful league is Spain, followed by Italy and England.
Free-spending billionaires
Chelsea is owned by Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has a personal fortune of £11.5 billion and has spent over £1 billion on the club. Manchester City have spent only a fraction less since being bought by another oil magnate named Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Almost
This season, due to a poor start from Real Madrid, La Liga has been slightly more competitive, with Real’s local rivals Atletico Madrid challenging for third place. But even so Real Madrid are hot favourites to finish second behind Barcelona.
At least 50%
The ‘50 + 1 rule’ applies to all Bundesliga teams except two, who have historic links to corporations: Wolfsburg is the Volkswagen team, while Bayer Leverkusen is owned by the drugs company Bayer AG.

Subjects

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