When I first started following football, the English Premier League was on top the world. Most of the best players played in the EPL, and English clubs dominated the Champions League. Three of the four would regularly appears in the Champions League semifinals. This culminated in the 2008 Moscow final when Manchester United beat Chelsea.
That final, it turned out, was the beginning of the end for EPL dominance. In hindsight the change came a couple of months later when a Xavi-led (and Raul-less) Spain won the 2008 Euro in spectacular fashion. Around the same time, Barcelona’s coach Frank Rijkaard was sacked. This ushered in the Pep Guardiola era, and the rest is history.
As Barcelona won trophies at an unprecedented rate, its eternal enemy Real Madrid got very jealous and scared and did what it always does when faced with a problem: throw money at it. Madrid acquired arguably the best player in Italy (Kaka) and the best player in England (Cristiano Ronaldo) and when buying expensive players wasn’t enough, Madrid got the man who the media claim is the best coach in the world (Jose Mourinho). Barcelona for their part doubled down on their Cruyffian philosophy and put more energy into the youth academy system with the occasional purchase, both good (e.g., Sanchez, Fabregas, Villa) and bad (e.g., Ibrahimovic, Chygrynskiy, Hleb).
As the arms race between Barcelona and Madrid escalates to an almost nuclear level, it is unquestionable that the best two teams in the world are in Spain (save for the occasional “Tuesday night in Stoke” comment, the other remark that Andy Gray will never live down). In denial fans of the EPL tried a new tactic to prove how superior their league is. It goes something like this, “Well maybe there are two great teams in Spain, but the rest are lousy, so it’s really just the Scottish league on steroids, and therefore boring.” Even people who should have known better (I’m looking at you, Sid Lowe), repeated this fiction as though it were gospel.
As it turns out, this year’s two European competitions have completely undercut this argument. Yes, Barcelona and Madrid are still the best of the best, but it turns out that the rest of Spain isn’t all that bad either. Advancing to the semifinals of the Europa League today were Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Athletic Bilbao. The latter club beat up on Manchester United in the last round in thrilling, Barcelona-esque fashion. Who knew that Athletic could do that? Certainly not the English.
So to recap, in this year’s two European competition, five of the eight remaining clubs are Spanish, the top four players in the world play in Spain, eight of the top 20 players in the world play for Barcelona, the defending Champions League and World Club Cup champion is from Spain, the Euro and World Cup champion is Spain, Spain is the top ranked nation in the FIFA rankings, and very shortly it will be the top ranked national league according to the UEFA coefficient.
Maybe Barcelona and Madrid rule the roost, but right now the also-rans in Spain are superior to the best of everywhere else.