Champions League

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Bundesliga, La Liga debate rages on

FOX Soccer News: Reaction from the Champions League semifinal draw.
FOX Soccer News: Reaction from the Champions League semifinal draw.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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DOWN TO FOUR

Cream of the crop rises as the UEFA Champions League final looms.

The upcoming UEFA Champions League semifinals offer up appetizing matchups between four teams who have inarguably been the continent’s strongest this season. So they make for a deserving final four.

Bayern Munich, armed to the teeth with world-class players and last year’s losing finalists, host Barcelona next week (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET). Barcelona are Europe’s incumbent dynasty and hope their superior system and ideology will prevail once more to claim a third Champions League in five years.

Borussia Dortmund, whose holistic approach and dizzyingly quick attacks have brought them back to the summit, will play at home to Real Madrid (live, FX, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) with the return leg played next Tuesday. Real Madrid, now officially the world’s richest club, have waited for a tenth European crown for a decade now. Worse still, Madrid have been overshadowed by nemesis Barca. And, well, another Champions League failure will not sit well with the Madrid fan base.

There will be fireworks, physical games, tactical chess and fraying nerves. But the subtext of the games will be just as interesting as what happens on the field, for they offer contrasting lessons on the merits of parity.

Last week, Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness came out and said that he was concerned that they and Dortmund were growing too dominant in the German league. Indeed, Bayern already has the league all sewn up and Dortmund won it the last two years. Increasingly, what was one of Europe’s most competitive leagues has become a two-horse race. And this worried Hoeness a great deal. Competition needs to be strong, he argues: both for the sporting and financial health of all those involved in the German league. They believe they are in it together and will all thrive when they act in concert.

So let’s, for argument’s sake, label the German entrants to the Champions League’s final four the “collectivists.”

As such, they stand diametrically opposed to their foes this week and next. Real Madrid and Barcelona would, if anything, be called the “individualists.”

The German Bundesliga has strict financial rules that require clubs to break even, pay their debts promptly and fairly equitably share their television rights, by far the biggest source of income for most of the world’s clubs – the first-placed team gets double that of the last-placed team.

Barca and Real, meanwhile, tower over the rest of Spain’s La Liga. They gobble up the bulk of the television money – last season the two clubs each got 10 times as much as the bottom eight La Liga clubs and three times as much as anybody else. They go ever deeper into debt to accommodate their arms race. And if nobody else can keep up, then so be it.

This has given Barca and Real Madrid a Spanish duopoly. They have won 24 of the last 28 Spanish championships. Germany, on the other hand, has known five different champions in the last decade alone. And while Bayern – five titles in that span – and Dortmund – two – have remained the biggest clubs, they never devoured the rest of the league to the detriment of its overall health. Indeed, no Bundesliga club has financial issues whereas most Spanish clubs forever teeter on the brink of ruin.

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But looking at it through a Champions League lens, both systems have allowed their two biggest clubs to prosper, as evidenced by their continental success this year. But it’s hard to ascertain which is most likely to produce a European champion, especially if you bring Europe’s two other big leagues into the equation.

The Premier League only pays its winner one and a half times of its television revenue what it does the loser – they are “collectivists.” And that league has arguably grown so competitive that the parity has hampered its bigger clubs in Europe. Like in Germany, every game is hard in England. There are no pre-Champions League weekends that you can coast through with your second-stringers, the way Barca and Madrid can. To wit: no English team reached the quarterfinals for the first time since the 1995-96 season this year. Yet the German teams perform in Europe regardless.

Then there’s Serie A; the world’s best league during the 1990s, when AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina, Lazio, AS Roma and Parma ran riot in Europe. Needless to say, the Italians have fallen off considerably from their European counterparts. Most clubs don’t own their stadiums and their revenue generation have significantly lagged behind. And as a remnant of those better days, they remain “individualists.” This year, the presumptive league winners Juventus are to receive four times as much television revenue as the last-placed team. As their big clubs have floundered, so has the league as a whole. The Serie A delivered five Champions League finalists from 2002-03 through 2009-10, though no Italian team has reached the semifinals since.

So which philosophy is better? The German and English leagues are more watchable than the lop-sided Italian and Spanish leagues. Yet they are no more likely to produce a European champion. Parity serves German clubs nicely but has harmed the English. And an oligopoly has worked out well for Spain’s giants but has left Italy’s biggest clubs worse off.

The parity paradigm remains controversial. No system is perfect. So whether Hoeness’s concern was founded is hard to say. Perhaps the conclusion of this year’s Champions League will offer up an answer.

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