Forever it’s been debatable as to which is the best league in Europe.
In the 70’s, Bayern Munich, led by star Franz Beckenbauer and goalkeeper Sepp Maier, was a European powerhouse and gave credence to the notion that Germany had the best league. At the same time, Ajax Amsterdam and the greatest Dutch player of all time, Johan Cruyff, were gaining popularity. Cruyff’s spectacular play commanded attention, and led fans to argue the best club soccer was in The Netherlands.
In the 60’s, the Portuguese had Eusebio’s Benfica and decades later Futre’s and Deco’s Oporto. The French did well with Olympique Marseille in the 80’s…Today, three leagues rise above the rest: Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League. Money is a factor these three have plenty of it compared to other leagues in Europe.
In the 80’s, when the English clubs were sanctioned as a result of hooligan activity, the Italian teams took the reign, as they were able to sign the top players of the world like Argentinean star Diego Maradona, German clutch midfielder Lottar Mattaus and Dutch strikers Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. This was the great A.C. Milan era, as the Italian champion became the first team in 20 years to win the European Cup in back to back seasons (1989 and 1990).
In the 90’s, Real Madrid was at its peak. Led by Raul, one of the most efficient players Real has ever had, the Whites claimed three titles in five years having a galactic squad that included stars such as; Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos, Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo and a French artist named Zinedine Zidane. The Spanish club has won more European championships (9) than any other team.
The Spanish dominance was highlighted by the first ever championship game to showcase two players from the same country. In 2000, Real Madrid faced Valencia and won clearly, 3-0. Three years later Italy would repeat the milestone with Milan defeating Juventus in penalty shots.
Today, the English are atop. The reasons? One, the Premier League is run excellently and has led to great profits. Two, players are signing long-term contracts and are committed to honing their skills with one team. Three, coaches are being given ample time to develop their programs.
Teams are signing players at a young age. Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas were both signed five years ago by Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively. Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the World right now, came to United when he was only 18. His commitment to Man U has proven successful for both. Fabregas was discovered by Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wegner at the age of 16 when he took Spain to second place of the U-17 World Cup. The Gunners gave him the opportunity, and he is now Arsenal’s leader.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Wegner are great examples of team management giving their coaches time to establish their programs. In 2008, Ferguson celebrated his 22nd season as head coach of United, claiming his second European title with the club. Wegner managed Arsenal for the past 12 seasons, developing a system that produces the most beautiful soccer in the continent.
Other managers are following the same path, such as Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez. The Spanish coach has been in charge of Liverpool for four years, taking the Reds to three continental semi-finals, two European finals and a European championship in the span.
In the last four seasons, the Premier League clubs have overshadowed the rest. Liverpool registered an amazing comeback in the 2005 European Championship game. The Reds won in penalty shots a contest they were trailing at halftime, 3-0, against AC Milan. Chelsea has reached the semi-final round in four of the last five years. The Blues and the Reds have faced each other three times in the semi-finals since 2005. Despite losing to Barcelona, 2-1, in the deciding match, Arsenal reached its first championship game in 2006.
Last season, three of the four semi-finalists were English: Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. However, FIFA World’s Best Player Brazilian Kaká led AC Milan to the championship, eliminating United in the semi-finals, and taking sweet revenge from the 2005 championship game by beating Liverpool, 2-1, in the final contest to claim the title.
This year the story was the same, with the exception that Barcelona (the only non-Premier League club left in the final four) could not repeat Milan’s heroics. Barça was eliminated by United, and Chelsea finally overcame Liverpool, setting up the first ever all-English European Cup final.
The final would end in dramatic fashion with a penalty-kick shootout. Chelsea was one penalty away from claiming its first European title, but star defender John Terry slipped and his kick sailed to the left of the goal. Two penalties later, Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar stopped French forward Nicolas Anelka’s shot. The result: Manchester United winning its third European championship in club history.United’s title gave the Premier League its 11th crown, tying England, Spain and Italy at the top of the rankings, five more than Germany.