What com­pe­ti­tion?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FOOTBALL -

IT’S the most com­pet­i­tive league in the world. Any­body can beat any­body on their day. There are no easy games in this league. The mantra of the Premier League apol­o­gists is well known. Ev­ery time a team from the Lit­tle Four­teen (as no­body ever calls them) plays a team from the Big Three (it is just three now, right?) the cliches come trot­ting along: in our league no­body gives any­body any­thing, every­thing’s a glo­ri­ous strug­gle.

It’s non­sense, of course: it’s ob­vi­ous the Premier League is a closed shop that can be opened only with the ap­pli­ca­tion of around a quar­ter of a bil­lion pounds. In Eng­land in the past decade there have been three dif­fer­ent cham­pi­ons. That’s the same as Spain, Italy and Por­tu­gal, poorer than France (four), and Ger­many and Rus­sia (five). But then in the past decade there have been Cham­pi­ons League win­ners from Eng­land, Spain, Italy and Por­tu­gal, and not from France, Ger­many or Rus­sia. It seems fairly ob­vi­ous that com­pet­i­tive­ness is some­thing that must be bal­anced against qual­ity: would fans pre­fer an ex­cit­ing do­mes­tic league, or for teams from that league to do well in con­ti­nen­tal com­pe­ti­tion?

That’s not to say that a low num­ber of dif­fer­ent cham­pi­ons is nec­es­sar­ily a sign of strength or high qual­ity. In Croa­tia, Di­namo Zagreb have won the league for the past six sea­sons and made next to no im­pres­sion in Europe. The prob­lem, Igor Bis­can said, is that their play­ers get used to win­ning eas­ily; come a tough match, a game against a side of even slightly lesser abil­ity, in which they have to do things that don’t come nat­u­rally, like de­fend­ing, they have no idea what to do. “Our play­ers walk through games against vil­lages so they for­get how to run,” as a Cr­vena Zvezda di­rec­tor put it to me a cou­ple of years ago. “But what are we meant to do? Buy play­ers for the other teams in the league as well?”

Rangers and Celtic have per­haps suf­fered from that at times in Europe, which may mean that the dom­i­na­tion of Euro­pean foot­ball by Barcelona and Real Madrid many have pre­dicted is not quite so sus­tain­able as many think. That in turn is some­thing to con­sider for those who would tweak the bal­ance of com­pe­ti­tion in the Premier League by do­ing away with col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for TV rights (quite apart from ask­ing whether the prod­uct will re­main so ap­peal­ing if games are hideously one-sided). That an­swer to the Zvezda of­fi­cial’s ques­tion, in fact, may end up be­ing “yes”, if only in­di­rectly.

The big pic­ture

If you want a true range of cham­pi­ons, you need to leave Europe. There have been six dif­fer­ent cham­pi­ons in Ja­pan in the past decade, seven in Brazil. In Ar­gentina, where the aper­tura-clausura sys­tem means there have been 20 cham­pi­onships in the past decade, there have been 11 dif­fer­ent win­ners – but there the spread of cham­pi­ons seems a func­tion of weak­ness, with the best play­ers from the best sides be­ing skimmed off by preda­tors from Europe and Brazil af­ter each cham­pi­onship in what’s ef­fec­tively a re­verse of the draft sys­tem in US sports.

But even if we ac­cept com­pet­i­tive­ness per se as a good thing, there are dif­fer­ent types of com­pet­i­tive­ness. Af­ter all, while there have been five dif­fer­ent cham­pi­ons in the past decade in Ger­many, Bay­ern Mu­nich have won the ti­tle five times, the same num­ber as Manch­ester United, Barcelona and In­ter­nazionale (Porto and Lyon, in­ci­den­tally, are the most suc­cess­ful in­di­vid­ual clubs in the 10 leagues con­sid­ered with seven ti­tles each in the past decade). In ef­fect, in Ger­many there is a Big One and, if they fire, no­body else has much of a chance. Whether one gi­ant and a hand­ful of oc­ca­sional chal­lengers is prefer­able to two or three giants is de­bat­able.

Look­ing at the num­ber of cham­pi­ons, though, says lit­tle about whether a team at the bot­tom can beat a team at the top. To try to come up with a sta­tis­ti­cal ba­sis for as­sess­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness within a league, I looked at four met­rics across the 10 leagues (Eng­land, Spain, Italy, Ger­many, France, Por­tu­gal, Rus­sia, Brazil, Ar­gentina and Ja­pan) over the past decade: the av­er­age gap from first to sec­ond at the end of the sea­son (how dom­i­nant is the cham­pion?); the av­er­age gap from first to fourth (is it only two or three teams who chal­lenge the cham­pion?); the av­er­age gap from first to last (what’s the gulf in qual­ity from top to bot­tom?); and the av­er­age gap from fourth to fourth-bot­tom (what’s the dif­fer­ence in qual­ity be­tween the midrank­ing sides?). Be­cause dif­fer­ent leagues have dif­fer­ent for­mats and are dif­fer­ent sizes, these gaps have all been ex­pressed as pointsper-game. (Points de­duc­tions were ig­nored).

In terms of ex­cit­ing ti­tle races, it turns out that Rus­sia is the place to be, with Spain some way back, and the rest trail­ing far be­hind. Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, given Porto’s dom­i­na­tion, Por­tu­gal has the high­est gap from first to sec­ond, but what is strik­ing is that Ger­many has had the sec­ond-least­close ti­tle races over the past decade, a fifth of a point-per-game sep­a­rat­ing first from sec­ond. The gap be­tween first and fourth in the Bun­desliga, though, is the fourth small­est of the 10 leagues sur­veyed, the gap from top to bot­tom the third small­est and the gap from fourth to fourth-bot­tom the small­est. That sug­gests that the leader of­ten streaks away while the rest re­main rel­a­tively tightly bunched.

The rest of the lot

The big­gest gap from first to fourth is in Por­tu­gal. Again, that’s in line with ex­pec­ta­tions: since the sec­ond world war, only Be­le­nenses and Boav­ista, once each, have in­ter­rupted the flow of ti­tles for Porto, Ben­fica and Sport­ing. There is a very clear his­tor­i­cal Big Three who con­tinue to dom­i­nate. In Italy, sim­i­larly, the two Mi­lan clubs and Ju­ven­tus (cal­ciopoli not­with­stand­ing) have clearly been dom­i­nant. What is per­haps un­ex­pected, though, is that Eng­land have the third-big­gest av­er­age gap from first to fourth: per­haps the Big Four was al­ways some­thing of a myth.

Brazil has the small­est gap from first to fourth, which it is tempt­ing to as­cribe to the size of the coun­try. A pop­u­la­tion of al­most 200 mil­lion can per­haps sus­tain more big clubs that smaller na­tions. It is also worth not­ing, though, the rel­a­tive im­ma­tu­rity of a national cham­pi­onship in Brazil; it could be that as the present sys­tem be­comes more es­tab­lished, money and suc­cess grav­i­tates to a more se­lect few.

But what’s re­ally telling is the last two col­umns, which show that there is a big­ger gap be­tween top and bot­tom of the Premier League and be­tween fourth and fourth bot­tom in the Premier League than in any of the other nine leagues un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. Far from be­ing the most com­pet­i­tive league in the world, in fact, it turns out to be the least. The league where the bot­tom is clos­est to the top, rather, is Brazil, which is re­mark­able when you con­sider that the sta­tis­tics in­clude the 28-team top flight of 2001 and the slow con­trac­tion to 20 in 2006 – the more teams there are, the wider you would ex­pect that di­vide to be.

Now of course an anal­y­sis of points tells only part of the story. It may be, in some hard-to-quan­tify way, that lower Premier League teams fight harder be­fore los­ing to the big guns, and it cer­tainly is true that the cul­ture of ar­ranged games, mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial draws and the like, seems less pro­nounced in Eng­land than else­where.

In terms of hard sta­tis­tics, though, the mes­sage is clear. The Premier League may lead the way in terms of mar­ket­ing and self-pro­mo­tion, but if you want com­pet­i­tive­ness, go to Rus­sia or Brazil.

Next week, I’ll look at how com­pet­i­tive­ness has changed in Eng­land over time, what the rea­sons for those changes may be and what the po­ten­tial im­pact of scrap­ping col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for tele­vi­sion rights may be. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2011

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