Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Don't judge a league by its elite

As football has become more and more corporate, the existence of elite cliques of teams in almost all the major four Europeans leagues have become an accepted part of the European football culture. While from time to time over the last fifteen years these subsections have been occasionally disrupted, it's not worth arguing against the balance of European football power being held by a maximum of four clubs in four leagues.

The same clubs almost always take part in the Champions League. While class is routinely (and tediously) said to be permanent, it would be more true to suggest that the established plutocracy is everlasting.

Considering well-earned prize money, league TV rights deals (especially pertinent in Spain), Champions' League income and large stadia, the wealthy club shave such a fiscal leg-up, that those clubs once (still?) associated with a European football superleague are essentially playing in a different league to their club opponents. This leads, especially in England, to clubs flush with imported players: in each of their last Champions' League matches, EPL clubs boasted a total of 12 players who had played with their club's juniors. Only four of those players – Ryan Giggs, Kieran Gibbs, Wojcieh Szczesny and Joe Hart – were starters.

Based on the past few seasons, the best clubs in the world have been Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and, if you tilt your head to the left and squint reeeal hard, Manchester United. However, these clubs seem to have birthrights allowing them access to European football and the money to buy players that most/all other teams in their respective countries envision only in their stickiest dreams. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and United now don't accurately represent their respective leagues but sit somewhere in the third standard deviation, part of a superelite that may as well play in a bloody superleague. (An idea that's never totally put to bed, by the way.)

Even though individual rights deals, league finances and priority on junior development makes this an exercise in apples and oranges, the strength of each league's mid-table sides must be evaluated to provide an accurate comparison. Perhaps now it's time to evaluate a league primarily by those squads in the middle of the pack, with both their achievement at home and abroad. Given the regular passage of players from mid-table teams to the elite, this also seems to best describe the league as a whole, rather than just paint a portrait of those paragon clubs.

Talk to a evangelising school principal and he will try to convince you that the best student in the class represents the quality of his teachers, amenities, tributary schools and leadership. However, this is often proved incorrect by assessing those students in the meaty part of the bell-curve. Money unlocks many doors, both in the education system and the football world. How students, teachers, clubs and players perform without that cash most accurately reveals the truth.

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