Thursday, August 27, 2009

And the Pendulum Swings: La Liga Rules the World - Again

Oh, it's time for this one. I've been anxiously anticipating writing this post. Make sure you've got some time for the cathartic unloading of resentment I'm about to drop on the Premiership-ophiles out there. La Liga starts this weekend, and what better time to tell you why it's the best league in the world than before any games have been played?

After three years of hearing EPL fans announce their supremacy to the four corners of the world, hitching their arguments to three consecutive years with three of four Champions League semifinalists, finally, at long last, La Liga has returned to its rightful place in world football - the pinnacle, the apex, the zenith. The past three years have seen me grasping at straws defending la Liga. Barcelona's undeniable class and a superior middle class of teams were my calling card in these debates. Sevilla's consecutive Europa Cups, and parity among quality sides like Villarreal, Valencia, and Atletico Madrid were needed to mask a poor Real Madrid side who had underperformed dramatically in Europe while contending in Spain. Throw in quality sides like the Euro-Getafe that gave the mighty Bayern Munich all they could handle in the Europa Cup, and Espanyol who lost a Europa Cup final to Sevilla, and I was always willing to go to bat for la Liga as a better all around league.

Not to mention the drastic fall-off of EPL sides beyond the Big Four, with talent-starved teams like Everton, Aston Villa, or Tottenham occupying spots five through seven. Where's their David Villas, Luis Fabianos, or Kun Agueros? That's right - they don't have them. And then, of course, there was my trump card - style, technique, grace, or tiqui-taka as the Spanish call it. Even the worst Liga team attacked, triangulated a path towards goal, and played attractive champagne football. Turn on a Mallorca v. Racing Santander I'd say, and tell me you don't have fun. Then watch Wigan v. Stoke, and wake me up when I fall asleep after the 47th long ball upfield.

But, at the end of the day, Europe was always the final arbiter of quality. Despite Barcelona's historic rise, the truth was that Real Madrid has struggled mightily in recent years, and managed to win la Liga with little more than testicular fortitude, Higuain, Casillas, and Robben. So what's changed, you ask? Shouldn't I wait to write this in May, once Champions League has shaken out? Of course not. That'd be silly, and it would deny me the chance to write another post then about how right I am now. Plus, the EPL's own players have seen the writing on the wall this summer. Torres still thinks the EPL is better, but Ferdinand concedes la Liga is better.

There is no debate that the EPL and la Liga are vying for the top spot in world football leagues. Italy is still rebuilding after the match-fixing scandals, and their economic woes. Germany may or may not jump over their southern competitors, but lack the number of quality sides to compete with England or Spain. So how do I know la Liga is better than the EPL? Easy.

1) Better football. The foundation of la Liga is attacking, champagne football. Fun to watch and highly technical, these tenets of the league as a whole have bolstered la Liga in the past few lean years. This mentality remains, and will remain. Less direct and aggressive than its English counterpart, the only thing it envies the EPL is sheer velocity, a product of the EPL's direct style. The Spanish prefer to "controlar los tiempos" that is to "control the time" or manage the pace and rhythm of the game. I prefer it too.

2) La Liga kept its stars. World class players such as Kun Aguero, Diego Forlan, David Villa, David Silva, Cazorla, Luis Fabiano, and Frederic Kanoute all stayed on Spanish shores. Arguably Samuel Eto'o was the only world class player to leave la Liga this year - and he went to Italy. So Valencia, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla will all build on their past successes with largely identical teams composed of elite talent. Villarreal - well they never had stars, but always achieved well above their lot in life, and I expect that to continue. And Barcelona - well, last I checked Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, and Dani Alves still play for the blaugrana. La Liga's only top losses were Eto'o and Robben. Otherwise, stability reigned in Spain's export market this summer.

3) An influx of stars and quality. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Xabi Alonso, and Ibrahimovic were the biggest names of the summer. In Ronaldo the EPL saw its brightest light find his way to Spain. Brazilian star Nilmar joined Villarreal. A series of lesser-known EPL players found their way to Spain as well: Jermaine Pennant, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Didier Zokora. Throw in some transfers whose footballing may be overshadowed by their goegraphical marketing reach, such as Nakamura, Manucho, and Boateng, and la Liga's visibility is on the rise too. Jozy Altidore is the only significant loss in this respect, but he'll be back at Villarreal soon enough. The EPL meanwhile, has largely cannibalized itself. Manchester City's big signings all came from the EPL. Manchester United signed Valencia from Wigan and Owen on a free transfer. Arsenal signed no one of great consequence. The fact is, in a list of the top ten players in the world - most are in la Liga. Ronaldo, Messi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Villa, and Aguero. The EPL has Rooney, Gerrard, Drogba, Cesc, Ferdinand, Torres and Lampard. Ribery looks set for Spanish sun next summer, as does Cesc. But we need not go that far - even now, la Liga's burgeoning superiority is apparent.

Don't get me wrong - the game's still played on the field. And la Liga has to prove its superiority there. But when la Liga was a cut below, I liked to remind the EPLites surrounding me that these things tend to be cyclical (something I'll promptly forget when four Spanish teams make the Champions League semis). It seems that the pendulum is swinging back towards the Mediterranean, and a chapter is closing on the EPL. The Big Four will compete in Europe, no doubt. But with la Liga looking to field Barcelona and Real Madrid, plus Sevilla, Atletico, Valencia, and Villarreal la Liga looks to have the best elite teams, the best upper middle class, and the best players. What more do you want? Real Madrid lifting their tenth European Cup in the Bernabeu over a weeping Puyol? Just wait for it. Valencia winning the inaugural Europa Cup. No prob. The EPL can have the marketing titles, Spain will settle for the footballing ones. And believe me when I tell you the European silverware is postmarked for somewhere in Spain this year. I'll leave those ridiculous arguments about the middle class and cycles to the EPL. Loser talk if you ask me.

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