Despite Premier League hype, La Liga is Europe’s strongest league.

The best league in the world. The most popular league in the world.

Both are common phrases to hear, when describing the English Premier League. Of course, they’re almost always used by British journalists or ex-players covering the English game on TV.

The recent announcement of the FIFpro World XI for 2012 was heavily criticised by many of those same British-based experts, after it consisted entirely of footballers playing for clubs in the Spanish Primera Liga.

How could it be possible that the Premier League was not represented, they asked? There were no questions of why the team included no players from the German Bundesliga, or Italy’s Serie A. But then they aren’t considered as being the best league in the world.

The most controversial omission was Robin Van Persie, who was the best player in England during 2012. He was overlooked, legitimately, in favour of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Radamel Falcao. The first two require no justification, though even Falcao managed to outscore Van Persie over the calendar year – as well as making a significant contribution to Atletico Madrid’s Europa League and European Super Cup wins.

There’s no question that the English league is the most hyped in the world, and it may even be true that it’s the most popular. After all, the revenue generated from worldwide TV rights are unmatched by any other top flight football league.

Whether it is the best though, is an entirely different question.

La Liga is generally seen as the next best league – again, based usually on the judgement of English-based experts alone. So in explaining the reasons why the Premier League rules, it is merely a case of those very people detailing why it is better than La Liga.

The main arguments usually include one or more of the following:

  • English football is more entertaining to watch;
  • There are only two strong teams in Spain;
  • Every game in England is competitive, regardless of the gulf in class between the two competing sides;
  • There is a better atmosphere in the stadiums;
  • Most of the world’s best players play in England

Some of the above statements are often used with such conviction that they cannot possibly be false, but there is plenty that can be said in support of Spain’s case for having the strongest football league in Europe.

In Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga contains arguably the two best club sides in the world. Neither are invincible, but there wouldn’t generally be too many people who would strongly disagree with that assessment.

The strength of those two teams in itself doesn’t reflect the general health of the league, but a look at the performances of Spain’s teams in Europe over the last decade certainly points to a depth in the quality of teams further down the league.

Results in European competition are one of the few ways in which the strength of a given league can be truly measured and compared. Doing so would only lead to a conclusion pointing very much towards Spain rather than the Premier League.

Since 2000, six Champions League finals have included a Spanish club, five of them won by the team from La Liga. The other was Valencia’s 2001 penalty shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich. The most recent three occasions have seen Barcelona triumph over English opposition.

In the UEFA Cup/Europa league over that time, nine different Spanish teams have reached at least the semi final, and there have been two all-Spanish finals. Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have each won the competition twice since 2005, and Valencia lifted the trophy in 2004.

In contrast, only six different English representatives have made it to the last four, and not since Liverpool defeated Alaves in 2001 has the Premier League delivered a winner.

For a league considering itself so strong, the performance of English teams in the Europa League has been quite dreadful. Every club in the top nine places of La Liga in 2010/11 had experience of competing in a recent European semi final, though it’d be almost unimaginable for the same to be true of the Premier League.

Based on present league placings, such a scenario would have to have seen the likes of Swansea, West Brom and Everton mixing it with the continent’s best, while even Man City have so far failed to make any kind of impression on European competition despite resources that perhaps only one or two clubs in the world can match.

Middlesbrough and Fulham did manage to achieve some continental success by reaching finals in 2005 and 2010 respectively, though neither had to face Spanish opposition until the final. Both were beaten – emphatically in Middlesbrough’s case.

The only other argument from those above that I will address is that of how competitive the matches within each league are deemed to be. Is it really true that Real Madrid and Barcelona have games where they only have to turn up to win, whereas Manchester United and Man City have to fight much harder for any points earned?

It may appear that English games are more competitive, but is that based more on the style of football? Does the fact that English teams adopt a more physical approach give an impression that smaller teams compete better against the top teams in England than in Spain?

If results were compared, it would be difficult to see any noticeable difference.

How often do any of the teams near the bottom of the table cause any problem to one of the title contenders, in either country?

Wigan’s win against Man United last spring comes immediately to mind, but there are few other examples to offer from recent seasons. Barcelona were near unbeatable in the 2010/11 season but still lost 2-0 at home to Hercules, who were relegated and won only one other away game during the remainder of the season. Evidence that hugely surprising results do occur in Spain, too.

It was said of QPR’s win over Chelsea earlier this month that the result was further proof of something which simply wouldn’t happen in Spain. But Chelsea haven’t been consistent this season to keep up with the top two and are a long way off the league leaders.

Even in the two weeks since then, Real Madrid have been held to a goalless draw by bottom of the table Osasuna. Meanwhile, amongst the points dropped by Madrid last season on their way to the title were draws against Villarreal and Racing Santander – both of whom went on to be relegated.

In Barcelona, the likes of Messi, Iniesta et al. have helped the club to a record-breaking first half of the season. A first league defeat did finally occur yesterday, and it was to 12th placed Real Sociedad – a team who made Real Madrid work extremely hard to hold on for a 4-3 win during the previous round of fixtures.

There’s a lot for football fans to admire about the Premier League, but to boast that it is the best in Europe, or to dismiss so much that the Spanish league has to offer only goes to highlight an English bias that, beyond one’s personal preference, appears to be very hard to justify.

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