Which is the most entertaining league is a source of contested debate, with the Premier League and English observers keen to claim the tag for themselves. The league may not have the same level of technical quality as La Liga, the argument goes, but in sheer entertainment and the pace and power of the spectacle, it is the most enticing on offer for television viewers.
Yet neither of these leagues are actually Europe’s most entertaining. And neither is the fast improving Bundesliga, now the proud owner of four Champions League spots, with the highest average attendances in the world, and two of the best teams around in Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. The days are gone when a team like Kaiserslautern could come from the second tier and win the top flight in their first season since promotion.
And no, I’m not talking about Serie A either. Italy’s top flight is enduring a troubled spell after losing out to the Bundesliga in that battle for four Champions League spots. Juventus are on the rise again after the Calciopoli scandal and the construction of a new stadium, Napoli are thrilling neutrals and challenging at the top again for the first time since the days of Diego Maradona, while Fiorentina are also on the rise again. But AC Milan and Inter Milan are both in the midst of a drastic cost cutting exercise that has made Serie A far less competitive. It will be a few years before the Italian league recovers.
So which league am I talking about? The free-scoring Dutch Eredivisie? The collection of rich sides that make up the Russian Premier League?
Ligue 1 gets relatively little attention compared to its main rivals, but the French league has to be the best for neutrals to watch in Europe. This year, once again, the league is the most tightly contested of all Europe’s major top flights. Last week Olympique Lyonnais led the way ahead of Girondins de Bordeaux and big spending Paris St Germain. By the end of last weekend Paris St Germain, Olympique de Marseille and Saint-Étienne were the new top three. By Wednesday night Olympique de Marseille or Olympique Lyonnais will be top after they meet, with two points separating the five sides at present. Two points further adrift are Valenciennes, Toulouse and Stade Rennais, although few expect any of the trio to compete for the title.
But then, that is what they said about Montpellier last year. Montpellier, the reigning champions, are 12th in the league and closer to the relegation zone than the title race. The champions from the previous season, Lille, are ninth and not even in the reckoning for the title at present.
It may not have the same level of quality as La Liga, the Bundesliga or the Premier League, but for unpredictability and competitiveness, the French league is unrivalled, with its top eight separated by four points. France frequently has such tight title races, with a clutch of teams within a few points of each other going into the second half of the season. And which other league has had five different champions in the last five seasons? And then there is that story of Montpellier, achieving something almost unheard of in modern football.
Having finished the 2010-11 season in 14th place, three points off relegation, Montpellier lost one of their best players, Emir Spahic. Their main signings were a defender bought from relegated Lens and an out of contract Marseille centre back, but practically nothing was spent by the team with Ligue 1’s thirteenth biggest budget, while Paris St Germain embarked on Europe’s biggest spending spree of the summer.
The rest is history, as Montpellier won one of the most remarkable league titles, and their first ever. In which other league could that happen? Certainly not La Liga, where Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate. Probably not the Bundesliga or Serie A either, with a select few teams continuing to dominate in either. Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich remain on another level in Germany, whilst Juventus are currently waiting for the revival of Inter Milan and AC Milan, but will dominate in the time being. And such an unpredictable title winner definitely would not happen in the ultra rich Premier League, where Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham are the only sides with a conceivable short or long term chance at present of lifting the title.
Now, with Paris St Germain bringing some of the best players in Europe to France, Ligue 1 is becoming increasingly exciting. Sides like Olympique Lyonnais, Lille and Marseille have either built, are building or have moved into, a new stadium, and will make more money in the years to come. France plays host to some of the best youngsters in Europe as one of the world’s main football markets. French players are highly sought after, because of the league’s combination of technical and physical quality, making players suited to moving to England, Spain, Germany or Italy.
The way to measure a league’s entertainment value is of course subjective. Technical skill, number of goals per game, passionate fans and physicality are all valid measures. Yet for the most competitive, unpredictable league in Europe, there cannot be a better watch than Ligue 1.