Best league in the world?: And Another Thing

From the May 205 issue of FourFourTwo...

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

Our panel, left to right:
Alex Florez, student, Hertfordshire, Barcelona
Tom Edwards, writer, north London, Tottenham
Tony Minoldo, fitness instructor, Bassano del Grappa, north Italy, AC Milan

We’ve got an idea what you’ll say, but go on: which league is the best in the world?

Alex Spain.
Tom The Premier League has to be. You ask anyone what football is all about, and the real strength is what it means to the fans. Attendances in England are higher than in Italy and Spain and football matters more to more people. It’s that simple. The clubs are sold out every week and that says it all.
Tony That’s because the capacity in your stadiums are so small: and anyway, your fans are boring. How can you sing a song sitting down? And there are no flags or firecrackers. I’m sorry but that’s boring. Listen, they don’t even show English football on Italian TV, because it’s so boring and lacks tactics and strategy. If you watch one film directed by John Smith and you don’t like it, then you watch another one and another one, and you don’t like any of them, eventually you will stop watching the films by John Smith. That’s what it’s like with English football – and you guys are the so-called inventors of the game.
Tom What do you mean, ‘so-called’? It’s a fact that we invented it.
Tony No, in Italy we played a game called calico which involved kicking an object with our feet in 1300 in Florence.
Tom Look mate, we had three leagues set up and running before Italy even existed.
Tony That doesn’t mean you’re the best.

OK, calm down! Which league offers fans most value for money?

Tony There are two ways English fans know how to entertain themselves: drinking before the game and drinking after the game.
Tom Don’t be silly, there are passionate fans throughout England, who keep coming back even if their team is not doing brilliantly, like at Sheffield Wednesday.
Tony They’re masochists!
Tom The clubs in England are also more profitable than anywhere else. Of the top 20 richest clubs in, eight are in the Premier League.
Tony That tells you more about the ignorance of the fans, who spend more money on their team than their families. Milan never change the colour of their away kit: if you believe in your colours, you don’t change your tradition.
Tom English clubs are just better at commercially exploiting opportunities.

This season the title race in Italy is more exciting than the other leagues. Is that an indication of a league’s strength?

Tom Before Chelsea came along, the only teams that could win the Premier League were Arsenal and Manchester United. But there are no easy games and everyone takes points off everyone else. You can predict who will finish in the top four and the bottom four, but not that Crystal Palace will take points off United or that Arsenal will draw twice with Southampton.
Tony In Italy, anyone can lose a game to anyone, apart from maybe Juventus who get some help from the referees! But the gap between first and last place is bigger in England than in Italy.
Alex There are more big clubs in Spain than the other leagues. Four different sides have won the title in the last six years, which already makes it more competitive. And then you have clubs like Athletic Bilbao, who will only pick Basque players for the side. While Real Madrid and everyone else buy the best players in the world, this fiercely passionate side will only have local players – and they are still competitive, they won the title twice in the 1980s and are doing well this season. It’s a more romantic concept of football. I bet Liverpool would love to have a team made up of local players. Instead most of them are Spanish.
Tom If you’re going to look at the geography of a country, you have to ask whether in fact the Italian league can be considered a truly national league. The top three teams are based in Milan and Turin, where the crazy industrial powers produce the best sides.
Tony That is a reflection of society in Italy. Everything is more efficient in the north: people don’t have more money there, but they use it better. Everything works better in the north: the police, the army, the shops, the football clubs. I can tell you, if Diego Maradona was at a northern Italian club instead of Napoli, there’s no way he’d have been allowed to behave like he did when he played there – and then he would not be in the trouble he is in now. We never have the player scandals in Italy. Antonio Cassano is a bad boy, but he is bad on the pitch, not drinking or beating up minorities.
Tom In England, at least the balance of power is split between Manchester and London. That makes the league a truly nationwide proposition.
Alex That’s true but Spanish clubs come out best in that case, because the spread of power is more evenly distributed in Spain. You have Deportivo in the north-west, Madrid in the centre, Barcelona in the north-east, Bilbao in the north, Valencia and Sevilla nearer the south. That is proper nationwide.

Still, there are no Spanish sides in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in 12 years. How important a barometer is success in European competitions?

Alex It is important, but this year the Spanish clubs have had a blip. That can happen when it’s knock-out football, but I know it was a one-off and they will come back stronger next year. Over the last five seasons, Spanish clubs have by far the best record in the Champions League and that is an indication that the Spanish league is the best. The technical quality is superior and we also get first choice of the best players from Argentina, who come to Europe and often go straight to Spain – mainly because it’s easier for us to fake their passports!
Tom I just don’t agree that Champions League success shows the strength of a league – you can’t say the Portuguese league is the best in Europe just because Porto won the Champions League last year. It’s like saying the Greek league must be great because they won Euro 2004.
Tony And as for saying you get the best Argentinians, they’re only in Spain because they’re not good enough to succeed in Italy. Roberto Ayala and Claudio Lopez both failed in Italy but did well in Spain. It’s harder to succeed in Italy because the coaches are so much better prepared. Again, look at a successful coach in Spain, like Hector Cuper: he comes to Italy and fails.

So are you saying that Italy has the best coaches?

Tom Most people would agree that Jose Mourinho is the best coach in the world right now. For a lot of people, coaching in the Premier League is the pinnacle of their career – that’s why it’s so difficult for other coaches to break into it.
Tony But even he has admitted that he wants to coach in Serie A when he leaves Chelsea. That means he sees the Premier League as a stepping-stone, and the real test is in Serie A. The truth is only four foreign coaches have won the league in Italy – Sven-Goran Eriksson, Helenio Herrera, Nils Liedholm and Vujadin Boskov. It’s hard to succeed as a coach in Italy and only the best do. One of the reasons is because they work so much harder to get the best out of their players. Look in Gazzetta dello Sport on a matchday and you will see so many different formations – 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-3-2 – every team is playing something different, something that suits them and makes it difficult to do well against them. Most English players only know how to play 4-4-2.
Tom But in England, we have some of most cerebral coaches in the world. Mourinho has made the 4-3-3 system work and not necessarily be boring: everyone conveniently forgets that boring Chelsea have scored more league goals than Barcelona this season. Arsene Wenger has done brilliantly at Arsenal and even someone like Martin Jol at Spurs has taken a very average team and made them more competitive.
Tony I agree with that but Wenger’s failure in Europe is a weakness for the Premier League. You are talking about quality and technique and yet every time it comes down to it, Arsenal, this great team, always fall down.

Would you at least all agree that the Italian league has the best defenders?

Tony It’s part of the culture. If you’re good player in Italy, you play in defence. We even have the two best goalkeepers in the world now as well, Gigi Buffon and Dida.
Alex No way. Iker Casillas is better than both of them! Some of his saves this season have been out of this world. He’s more consistent and always makes big saves. He spends the whole game diving to keep shots out.
Tony That’s because he has much less technique. He can’t catch the ball. When I was coached as a goalkeeper, I was told that the more dives you make in a match, the more you are out of position.
Tom The fact is, Petr Cech has conceded the fewest goals. But I think Tony is right: compare Milan’s unbeaten run in the early-1990s to Arsenal’s just now, and that Milan side was based on defence. They only conceded 15 goals in one season, while Arsenal never played with the same constraints: if their opponents scored four, they would score five – as they did when I saw them beat Spurs 5-4 at White Hart Lane. My team lost but I was still entertained, as you would be if an away team scores five goals. I accept that more goals do not automatically make it better, but that was one of the best games I’ve ever seen.
Tony Yeah, but Jose Mourinho said that was like a hockey score, and he was right. When there are nine goals in a game, someone is not doing their job properly. Anyone who watched that game would say, “Oh my God, that was awful defending!” When I want entertainment I go to the cinema, when I watch my team play, I want them to win.
Alex If you don’t want to be entertained, why do you even like football? In Spain, there are exciting wingers like Joaquin at Betis and Vicente at Valencia. These guys are great to watch and make the league more exciting. In England, the new trend is for teams to play 4-5-1 and that debunks the myth that the Premier League is exciting. Charlton, Fulham, Blackburn, they all play it – and so do Everton and to be honest, Everton are disgusting to watch. They can’t pass, they play three holding midfielders and they are fourth in the division! In Spain, they’d be 16th.

What about the negative aspects – diving, fouling, etc – in each league?

Alex The worst is England. The defenders are dirty and aggressive. The coach will say he told his team to get stuck in but it’s just a euphemism for kicking the opponents as hard as they could. In England they cheat more and are more violent.
Tony Oh my God, are you joking? What are you talking about? In Spain, they’re bloody criminals. They’re terrible, they get you from behind. They just lack skill in England. I’d say it’s harder in England, but it’s nastier in Spain!
Tom The defenders are more honest in England.
Alex No. In Spain, teams are happier for opponents to come into their own half and they defend from there. It’s more intelligent than in England, where forwards are throwing themselves at players to stop them crossing the halfway line.

Why are there more foreign players in the Premier League than the other leagues?

Alex It’s a real failing of English players that so few succeed abroad. I think it’s because of their technique, their lack of education and the simple fact that they can’t be bothered to learn a language. It’s embarrassing.
Tony English players can’t adapt to the game – they are not as good at thinking about what they have to do all the time.
Tom I don’t think having so many foreigners is such a bad thing. If you want diversity, England is the best place – there are so many different types of players who can succeed here, like Alan Shearer, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp.
Tony Ha ha! The last two only came to England because they failed in Italy. Zola is a good player but made his name in England because the defending is much worse. There are certain players that succeed in certain leagues: in Italy, the teams rely on power forwards like Adriano and Andriy Shevchenko. Look at certain players and how they struggle to adapt in Italy: when I see the shape of Ronaldo now, I just think, he would never score in Italy. But he scores in Spain because the defences are crap. He did nothing at Inter.

OK, finally, if there was a European Super League and each country had six teams represented in it, which nation would be most successful?

Alex I honestly think the Spanish sides would come out on top. Barcelona would win it one year, then Real, then Valencia. They are all good league sides and have shown in the Champions League that they can compete against the other sides and do well. Spanish sides would win every year.
Tom That’s not true – you would get the same fluctuation you get now in Europe. All the teams go through cycles of power and there would be spells where one country may dominate for two years, then another will win things. That’s what happens throughout football and you can see that in Europe. No single country has dominated the Champions League – though I would like to point out that only England had four teams representing them in the Champions League last 16.
Tony But two of them got knocked out. I think both of you have had too much beer!

Interviews: May 2005.