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Spanish Inquisition: Redeeming La Liga Football

In early January, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) released its annual report ranking the world’s top ten football leagues as follows:

1.  Barclays Premier League (England)
2.  Serie A (Italy)
3.  Primera Division Argentina
4.  La Liga BBVA (Spain)
5.  Bundesliga (Germany)
6.  Ligue 1 (France)
7.  Brasileiro Serie A (Brazil)
8.  Primera Division de Mexico
9.  Liga Sagres (Portugal)
10. Ukraine Premier League

To the chagrin of La Liga followers, La Primera had dropped to fourth behind England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, and even Argentina’s domestic league. Much of the reasoning behind the Premier League's claiming first position was the English domination of the Champions League, while Spanish clubs would not have a competitive year on the European stage — neither in the UEFA Cup nor the Champions League — and La Liga would drop 122 points in the IFFHS standings from their 2007 mark.

This year, yet again, three out of the four semi-finalists in the UEFA Champions League are English teams: Chelsea, after a scintillating duel with another Premier League side in Liverpool; Manchester United, after scraping through the quarter-final stage on a forty-yard wonder-strike from Cristiano Ronaldo; and Arsenal, after handily dispatching La Liga side Villarreal at the Emirates Stadium.

But similar to last year’s three English competitors, Barcelona have also again advanced to the final four of Europe’s coveted stage. The lone representatives from La Liga look strong this year and could very well win the trophy and restore some pride to the Spanish game. But does Barca winning the Champions League redeem Spanish football worldwide?

This year has been a very difficult season to gauge La Liga as Barcelona have propelled themselves head and shoulders above the rest of the clubs in Spain. So great is the gulf between the Blaugrana (both in points and play) from the rest of La Liga, that one is forced to ponder if Barcelona are really that incredibly good, if the rest of La Liga are really that incredibly poor, or if to some degree both those conjectures are true.

From the ninth match of the season, Barca have reigned over La Liga and, at their height, stretched their lead out to 12 points over second-place Real Madrid. Currently, after Real Madrid woke up and realised that they too have a championship squad that won back-to-back Liga titles the past two years, the leaders have seen their advantage dwindle to a six-point cushion over Los Blancos.

But over third-placed Sevilla, Barca’s points margin balloons out to 18 points — translating into a 12-point gap that separates La Liga’s second-placed team from its third-placed squad. The disparity grows alarmingly greater as fourth-placed Valencia (who, if La Liga were to end today, would earn a Champions League berth and the right to compete against Europe’s elite next season) sit an astronomical 26 points — over 33% fewer points — behind the Catalan giants, 20 points behind second-placed Madrid, and eight points behind third-placed Sevilla. In the Premier League this season, just ten points separate the fourth-placed team (Arsenal) from first-placed Manchester United.

The rest of the La Liga table trickles down in a fairly consistent distribution of points margins, but the top-heavy skewing of the table and the points gaps that separate those “top” Spanish teams make for some fairly bleak diagnoses as to the competitiveness of La Liga this year. Perhaps the IFFHS rankings have something to them after all?

Another measure for La Liga’s competitiveness across leagues is the UEFA Cup where the middlemen — clubs more representative of the average — are compared across Europe’s leagues. Where the Champions League has become a competition for a selection of Europe’s largest and richest clubs — with the occasional aberration from the margins coming forward as Villarreal did this season - the UEFA Cup is a chance for each league’s more “standard” clubs to fight for a piece of European glory.

This year, unfortunately, has not been a favourable one for La Liga clubs in the UEFA Cup either. After winning in consecutive years (2006 and 2007) and being unable to participate last year because of Champions League obligations, Sevilla were disappointing in their campaign this year. Gone are the days of Espanyol’s and Osasuna’s European adventures — both clubs have been struggling against relegation this year and Espanyol look like they will be bound for La Segunda.

And who could forget the ‘Eurogeta’ Getafe side that gave Bayern Munich an enthralling run for their money in the UEFA Cup’s quarter-finals last year? They are also fighting for their La Liga lives this season. Instead, the latter stages of the UEFA Cup feature no La Liga side this year, a lamentable absence from European competition and a discouraging indication for the competitive health of La Liga.

This past summer, the Spanish national side won their first major trophy in over forty years, taking home the Euro 2008 championship. Surely claiming this accolade redeems La Liga somewhat on the global stage?

But while La Liga clubs seem to be floundering, Spanish players have shown themselves to be some of the best in the world. What’s more, a good share of the more influential players on Vicente del Bosque’s La Roja squad play in the Premier League (Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, and Albert Riera).

Thus it must be said that for La Liga to regain its stature as the world’s best league, Spain’s domestic talent must be retained and cultivated and players must be given the incentives to stay in the land of toros and tapas. The world’s game must be made beautiful again and what better way than with the panache that only the Spanish know how to achieve? Besides, the crowds sound much better chanting “Ole” anyway.

Cyrus C. Malek,