By Panos Bletsos
They are two of Europe’s most influential countries, two states that have historically affected a large part of the globe by means of colonization, trade, politics, even language – English and Spanish are the most spoken tongues on the planet, besides Mandarin Chinese. Through centuries England and Spain have been engaged in armed conflict on at least ten occasions and although their present day relations are anything but hostile, there’s still a serious issue yet to be settled. And I don’t mean the status of Gibraltar.
I am of course talking about football and two of the Beautiful Game’s superpowers fighting it out for continental (if not global) domination, at least at club level. Which one is the best: the Premier League or the Primera División? Anfield or Santiago Bernabéu? Wayne Rooney or Leo Messi? Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but certain objective factors cannot be overlooked.
Who’s the Boss?
The battle for European primacy has been raging on ever since the UEFA competitions kicked off, back in the 1950s. Spain dominated in the beginning with Real Madrid winning six Champions’ Cups in 11 years (including the first five) and their cross-town rivals Atlético the ’61-’62 Cup Winners’ Cup. In the ‘60s came Italy with four Champions’ Cup trophies and a couple of Cup Winners’ Cup triumphs, having Milan as their frontrunners and then arrived the Dutch with their Total Football, claiming four consecutive Champions’ Cups, together with success in both the UEFA Cup and the Super Cup. It was all followed up by a tug o’ war between Bob Paisley’s Liverpool and the German sides, which lasted for a decade starting in the mid-‘70s, before the Italians were back in the limelight throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, boasting an impressive 23 pieces of European silverware across all four competitions – not to mention another 17 runners-up spots.
Ringing the Changes
The balance of power in the Old Continent started to shift by the late ‘90s, shortly after the Bosman ruling, the hegemonic TV rights deal between the English Premier League and satellite broadcaster BSkyB in 1992 and of course the establishment of the Champions League, three seemingly separate incidents that radically changed the face of football as we knew it. Huge amounts of television-generated cash flowed in across Europe with two major beneficiaries; you guessed it, England and Spain.
Soon it became obvious on the field. Starting with Manchester United’s famous come-back 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in ’99, the English won the Champions League three times in recent years and have featured in six of the last seven finals, including the 2007-’08 Chelsea – ManU showdown in Moscow. They also added another three European Super Cup victories and one more UEFA Cup to their collection.
Simply the Best
The Spaniards fared even better than that. Since 1997 Real Madrid won the Holy Grail of European football three times, a feat repeated by Barcelona, while the 1999-2000 final in Paris was an all-Spanish affair. That was also the case seven years later in the UEFA Cup, with the trophy heading to the Iberian peninsula four times in seven seasons. Add to that another seven Super Cups in just 15 years, including the last three, and you get the picture.
The English waste no opportunity to remind the rest of the world that they invented football. Sometimes they do it in awkward fashion, like the recent Dave Richards comments, when the Premier League chairman suggested that FIFA and UEFA “stole” the game from England. Within the field of play, however, the Spanish seem to be doing a better job of late. Besides dominating European competitions over the past 15 years with 17 trophies won, compared to their major rivals’ seven, they have also prevailed in their head-to-heads. And if the recent Manchester United abjection at the hands of Athletic Bilbao is not convincing enough, let’s stick to some hard, irrefutable evidence.
Six years ago Middlesbrough, these days a second-tier side, stunned the continent by making it all the way to the UEFA Cup final in only their second ever European participation. Despite eliminating the likes of Stuttgart and Roma in the process they proved no match for high-flying Sevilla, who hammered them 4-0 in the Eindhoven end-game. It was a similar story in the ’09-’10 campaign. Also playing in Europe for the second time ever, Fulham turned giant-killing into a profession before meeting Atlético Madrid in the Hamburg final. They fought bravely, but still went down 2-1 after extra-time against an unstoppable Diego Forlán. And if the UEFA Europa League history is not your cup of tea, let me just remind you that Barcelona won all of their last three Champions League crowns against – that’s right – English opposition: after overcoming Arsenal 2-1 in 2006, they claimed the Manchester United scalp both in ’09 and last year, comprehensively too I might add. Exceptions such as Chelsea’s 1998 1-0 Super Cup victory over Real Madrid or the 2001 Liverpool nine-goal thriller win after extra-time against Alavés, today languishing in the third division, merely prove the rule.
And talking of exceptions, it seems that nowadays there is only one English club capable of luring top players from Spain; big-spending Manchester City bought Robinho from Real Madrid for USD 50.3 million in 2008 and Sergio Agüero from Atlético for another 55.8 million last year. According to the trend, however, first-class football stars leave England for Spain – Cristiano Ronaldo moved from Manchester United to Real for a world record 124.8 million in 2009 and Cesc Fàbregas returned to his homeland and Barcelona last year for 53.1 million.
Yes, football stadiums in Spain are below the high-tech, modern day standards largely set by the English. Yes, there is probably no other place in the world where one can enjoy a football match as much as in England – nowhere else is the Beautiful Game treated with such love and respect. But no, England is not the pacesetter of European football anymore; Spain is. And the conclusion is drawn easily, without even considering how the two great nations fare on the international level of play. Then the comparison would truly be uneven.
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