The La Liga blueprint: Why polarisation is unavoidable across league football

There will always be haves and have nots but teams don't always stick to the script.

The La Liga blueprint: Why polarisation is unavoidable across league football
European giants Lyon lift their fourth UWCL title (Credit: Getty/Stu Forster)

An argument or an ode maybe about parity and polarisation in league football, covering large swathes of Europe and dealing heavily with the new plans for WSL. Money and natural evolution the overriding themes.

Rise and fall

Why would you even want to join Lyon? They always win, the French league is so boring. Two team league, Lyon and PSG, blah blah.”

Actually that's factually incorrect. Whilst PSG were second to Lyon for four seasons on the spin between 2012-13 and 2015-16 they rather dropped off of the space in the second-half of 2016-17 and finished third.

Although it’s true, Lyon have been the dominant force in French football in recent memory they’re not the only team to have hoisted the Division 1 Féminine trophy. If you go back to the 1980’s, VGA Saint-Maur were the dominant force scooping six titles – the same amount as Juvisy (now Paris FC), Stade Reims were strong in the 1970’s with five titles and Toulouse derailed both Juvisy and FC Lyon (the club that would later become part of Olympique) when they were picking up pace at the end of the 1990’s.

The point of course is that whilst Lyon are the team to beat in France today – and have been at the top of the tree for a prolonged period of time – they weren’t always the big dogs. The same is true of every league in every country across both the men’s and women’s games.

In Norway we think of LSK as being the team to run away with the Toppserien but their rise is much more recent, their first title as LSK (not Team Strømmen) came in 2012, Stabæk and Røa the big two before. Going back further in Norwegian history, Kolbotn and Trondheims-Ørn were both prominent in their heyday – even humble Klepp managed a title in 1987. Things change, teams rise and fall.

But turning the attention back to France and D1F, it’s not a one or a two-team league. Lyon finished top last season but an away loss in the capital looked to have given the Parisiens the advantage. PSG ultimately fell away and succumbed to some surprising losses, making enough way for Montpellier to march onto a second-place finish. And even still, Juvisy operating on a part-time basis still popped up to provide problems wherever they could as Olympique Marseille showed their intent.

PSG and MHSC square off in the league last season (Credit: Getty/Andre Ferreira)
PSG and MHSC square off in the league last season (Credit: Getty/Andre Ferreira)

Despite how the season ended it was far from a foregone conclusion and even if it was, so what? If it simply came down to the head-to-heads between OL and PSG, so what? What of the other teams in the league the other players who put in the hours and attempt to grow and develop, to play football and mature as footballers? What of the mid-table clashes and the life or death ties between the teams sure to battle for survival in the relegation zone? Do those matches, those stories not matter?

A familiar picture we’ve been ignoring

Even if we put all that to one-side for the moment and we go back to saying, “Blah blah, it’s just two teams going for the title; it’s boring, who cares?” And you’d be right, I can’t imagine any league in the world where it’s just routinely two teams going for the top spot… Oh, except La Liga, which, let’s be fair, has but a tiny global following. “But it’s not even two teams, you always know it’s going to be Lyon, who gives a monkeys?” Again, you’re right, any league that has a clear favourite from the off, no one would ever… oh, ignoring Serie A and Ligue 1 that is.

Derision aside, this is such a peculiar argument being made across women’s football – it’s not competitive enough, there’s too much disparity. Well, show me a men’s league that isn’t polarised. Even when looking at the beloved English Premier League, is it open, or is it just London vs Manchester? Leicester’s remarkable league win in 2015-16 was the first time a team outside of London or Manchester had won since Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95. In fact, in this century the only teams outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, City, Liverpool and United who’ve appeared in the top three come the end of the season are Newcastle (third in 2002-03), Leicester (top in 2015-16) and Spurs (third in 2015-16 and second in 2016-17).

Yet, despite this predictability the Premier League remains one of, if not the biggest football league in the world.

The comparison was made by a colleague last year that D1F is a lot like La Liga, Real, Barcelona and Atleti or Lyon, PSG and Montpellier. Those with the bigger budgets, those who will still slip up as the season goes by even though they routinely lay waste to some of the smaller teams they face along the way. But truly, many leagues across the world have the same disparities, whether male or female, no one bats an eyelid when Real Madrid put six past Betis or five past Osasuna but when Lyon put five past ASSE… It’s not ideal by any means and the disparity between part-time and full-time will routinely see more drubbings but they are part of everyday life in football.

Liga Iberdrola table at the end of 2016-17 season (Credit: Wikipedia)
Liga Iberdrola table at the end of 2016-17 season (Credit: Wikipedia)

When you compare the state of the table after the end of the 2016-17 seasons in Spain, there are commonalities between how Liga Iberdrola finished when compared with La Liga.

La Liga table at the end of 2016-17 season (Credit: Wikipedia)
La Liga table at the end of 2016-17 season (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the most shocking thing on the Liga Iberdrola table for those who don’t follow the league is simply that Barcelona aren’t current champions, nor were they champions the season before – that cherry fell to Athletic Club. A team prominent during the previous incarnation of the league, Rayo the other team to beat over the first decade of the millennium, Barcelona’s four back-to-back titles coming from 2011-12 to 2014-15.

The reigning champions are just one of three teams to have a 100% record so far in the 2017-18 season, which, admittedly (at the time of writing) has only seen three match weeks. But the interesting thing about their wins, which speak to the nature of the league, are that none have been easy.

The first day of the season saw them forced to come from behind against minnows, Albacete – El Funda only finishing two points clear of the drop zone last season. Their second match of the year saw them dig out a 1-0 over Real Sociedad (a team without a win in their last six at that point), Atleti’s third match of the season another decided late, all three goals coming after the hour against Santa Teresa. Maybe the most telling thing for Las Colchoneras is that all seven of the goals this season have been scored after the 60-minute mark.

After their thumping start to the season, firing nine past a helpless Zaragoza, Barcelona have rather slowed down, their three at home to Albacete still comfortable enough before they too left it late against Sociedad. La Txuri-urdin particularly unlucky this month, but a reminder for the Catalans that they are never guaranteed three points, no matter what their last result was.

More even in elsewhere in Europe  

Whilst the disparity can be heavily felt in parts of Europe, the leagues remain far more open in Germany and Sweden despite not every team being able to offer professionalism. Last weekend ten-time Damallsvenskan winners, Rosengård (who look nailed on for a top-two finish once more) dropped points to KIF Örebro who sit dead-last with just two wins from 16 games.

Although there seems to be a strong chance that this season will finish as last with Linköping first and Rosengård second, it has been an entirely different process for both teams and the entire league. LFC first, FCR second, predictable maybe, in some respects but each match, each twist and turn, every goal, every miss, it’s been engrossing as ever.

In Germany, Wolfsburg have started the season strongly after regaining their FBL crown after two years away. The Wolves didn’t have the perfect start to the 2016-17 season, drawing away to SC Sand, their results mostly modest throughout the first-half of the season – a 1-2 win over promoted Borussia Mönchengladbach one that springs to mind.

However, when the season recommenced after the winter break and Ralf Kellermann could add Pernille Harder into his squad as Caroline Graham Hansen returned, they began to pick up steam, their wins more convincing. But even still, when they looked almost unplayable, they had to come from behind at home against SGS Essen before losing to SC Freiburg, the season wrapped up with a draw against USV Jena. Pushed to the limit in the Pokal final by Sand, the Wolves found their way to their second silverware of the year but the tiny team from Willstätt didn’t make it easy for them.

Wolfsburg are the PSG to Lyon’s Real, both are packed to the rafters with the best players from around the world who are granted the opportunity to devote themselves to football on full-time contracts. But even still, WOB can find themselves pushed and under the cosh against part-timers who don’t need a level playing-ground to battle for a point or three.

 

Faux parity

This notion, this consistent argument that if you have five, ten or twenty teams they all have to be able to win the title every season is barmy. You can never have true parity, even if you impose strict caps on squad size, on minimum and maximum investment, on every area of the game, it will still not happen.

There is certainly a need for something more level than the likes of Yeovil on a shoe-string up against Manchester City, although that remains an extreme. Of course, if Yeovil were to find wins and safety in the league that wouldn’t be a problem but they’d still be having to deal with their own part-time status in a league where almost everyone else is a full-pro’ and that’s simply not sustainable.

With how the Women’s Super League has gone with the rapid, rapid growth and constantly shifting goalposts, the need for parity is there but if you can’t find ten teams who can suddenly magic up a full-time set-up you go the other way and put maximum caps on, to slow down the accelerated growth.

This of course, is a controversial area. Even if you were to have a WSL which is completely aligned to the EPL in terms of teams, you’d still have your Manchester Citys, Chelseas and Arsenals against your Bournemouths and Huddersfields. Despite the best laid plans of mice, men and the FA, you’d still have these issues. Furthermore, the interest continues to remain well below what the FA want and need and the league continues to haemorrhage money. As was seen when Notts County Ladies folded and Alan Hardy revealed the debts the team had racked up in attempt to keep up with the bigger clubs who have Premier League money to back them up, the model simply unsustainable.

It was a hark back to the days of Charlton and Fulham, the insurmountable debts in women’s football having just migrated up the M1, if women’s football in England has shown one thing over the years, it’s that tying their fortunes to that of a men’s club is not always a good thing. When women’s teams become dependent on their male parent clubs they’re often the first on the chopping block when clubs whose own overspending gets too much and they quickly need some fat to cut. Ask Sunderland ladies how switching back to a part-time model has “benefited” them and whether or not having their budget slashed helped the men’s team avoid relegation to the Championship.

Low interest

The greater problem exists in England in that women’s football had its boom in the 1920s with the Dick, Kerr's, the team drawing quite astonishing crowds for the day, their numbers enviable for any team, let alone, a women’s one. The football was good, it was damn good and those who attended knew so. It was so good in fact that the FA felt the need to strangle and suffocate it so it didn’t hurt their own pockets, flimsy arguments made about the dangers to the health of women made.

So, when the men returned back to league football, the FA continued to take a healthy chunk, it was a despicable act from the governing body of football in England and women’s football has not been the same since. But there is no disputing the crowds, the English crowds loved every moment of the football they got to see, which is why almost one hundred years later the sexism and derision seems more rampant. The suggestion of lower-cut shirts and tighter shorts continue, comment sections on articles about women’s football (or women’s sport in general) still riddled with “kitchen” remarks. We seem to have devolved.

England might have been the birthplace of modern day football but it’s certainly not the home of football. When you look at the crowds pulled in Mexico in Liga MX Femenil or Spain in Liga Iberdrola, it speaks of countries that love football and live for it, no matter the gender of who is playing.

But that’s not our culture in England, that’s not how we live and breathe, the historical gangs in football not ones who’d transfer over to the women’s game – that’s not to say that the men’s side is riddled with hooliganism but some of the mentalities of the badge have remained. Men’s football fans in England don’t simply transfer over to women’s football, the game too different for many to get behind in the UK – so a different marketing strategy is required, a target audience yet to be identified.

Yet the FA are looking for a boom, hoping that the league even begins to sustain itself and no longer run at such a high deficit.

 

Low funds

The problem of funds in women’s football is felt the world over where there are teams taking their federations into dispute, some of the more notable recent ones including the Republic of Ireland and Scotland teams. So too the Euro 2017 runners-up Denmark, Sweden currently renegotiating with the SvFF and players in Norway taking about conditions being better than elsewhere but still not good enough. As well as the almost farcical handling in Latin America as has been highlighted just this week with the Brazilian trio of Cristiane, Fran and Rosanna all retiring from international duty. Or the ongoing disputes with the Argentine team, the examples go on.

But that’s a conversation for another day, the point remains that women’s football still doesn’t generate the money that the FA needs it to to justify a completely full-time league. If WSL is to switch to a full-time model and teams below WSL 2 are allowed to jump the queue and have to bring in new players and coaches and everyone else behind the scenes. It will cost a healthy amount and we’ll undoubtedly see a boom in foreign imports – which would hardly be the worst thing to happen but given some of the money that could be thrown around the league may start to resemble the Chinese Super League.

Women’s football needs investment, but it needs sensible monitored investment not just a massive cash injection overnight, it needs to be nurtured and able to grow at an organic rate, and these expedited plans for the new WSL smack of forced evolution.

They are an idea tossed around without real consequences really taken into consideration, because what happens when Bournemouth and Huddersfield have women’s teams and are still operating on a smaller budget than Chelsea, City and Arsenal? But if they were to be relegated, then what of the Cherries and the Terriers in WSL? What happens to the teams, to the players who suddenly see their funding cut at their male counterparts lose out on that lovely Premier League money?

Former galácticos

In an article for the BBC in July, Tom Garry talked about WSL as being the “league of the future” with respect to players being able to devote themselves to football and train as professionals – or at least, more so than in any other European league. He talked about Champions League winners, City and Chelsea, big teams from around Europe, about how just four years ago it was Tyresö and Juvisy who were getting to the UEFA Women's Champions League final.

But it’s vital not to forget what happened to Tyresö, to Torres, to Juvisy or to the current Swiss Nationalliga A champions, FC Neunkirch. Each team having to withdraw or simply blink out of existence. Tyresö’s debts unmanageable when Tyresö Fotboll AB ended up bankrupt, the over-inflated squad – the Scandinavian galácticos – not getting paid because of it, the team forced to withdraw from the 2014 Damallsvenskan season as well as the 2013-14 UWCL. Amazingly Tyresö FF still exists and the women’s team play in Division 1 (tier 3), in the Södra Svealand region.

Torres (or to give them their full name Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica Torres Calcio Femminile), the once great Italian team ceased to be ahead of the 2015 Serie A season, the club having run up a debt that couldn’t be written off despite being absorbed into S.E.F. Torres 1903. Well known in Italy and having amassed seven scudetti and eight Italian cups, I Rossoblù were a regular fixture of the Champions League before they winked out of existence.

Even just this summer, Juvisy had run up a considerable debt, their part-time model clunky and impractical and although they’d hoped to stay autonomous after a merger were forced to have a rebrand, fully absorbed by Paris FC.

In Switzerland, Neunkirch – who’d risen through the leagues before becoming champions – were forced to withdraw from the upcoming season and relinquish their spot in the forthcoming Champions League season, the team unable to cope with the rising costs.

A bleak future

A familiar story then, one heard around Europe that serves as a reminder that to play with the big boys you can’t just talk the talk and walking the walk involves considerable investment, investment that WSL clubs tied to EPL teams should have. Your futuristic league.

Women’s football is not designed to deal with that influx of money when the return is so low, in fact when most teams end up so deeply in the red. Those teams didn’t last. There is something to this new-look WSL that is akin to the NWSL, a supposed level playing field, no promotion or relegation – teams playing in their own little bubble without consequence.

That is already something that has upset English fans because where’s the excitement, where’s the thrill? What about those last few weeks of the league when your team could get relegated, when every win, every point is vital, a lifeline; fought and died for in the space of ninety minutes. When you’re trying, digging in, every last breath given not to get relegated, now what happens? Two weeks from the end of the season, you’re a point off of the team above you and one of you is going down, wait no, neither of you are, there is no relegation, why bother fighting? Why not just submit to the loss and canter to the finish line? That’s not to say any team is going to willingly lose but as we’ve seen many times, when the pressure is off players switch off on a subconscious level, players and teams slow down, they don’t need to sprint to the last if there’s no threat.

So you’ll finish bottom, so what, there’s always next year. You’re not in danger, you’ll not get relegated or lose players because of it, just as long as your men’s team doesn’t get relegated all will be right with the world.

The American look

The FA have long-since tried to push a more American look in this country, whether it’s with the Lionesses of the English national team or this proposed new WSL – there is something repeatedly, unresentfully American about these brands.

The problem is, aside from the NWSL being incredibly fragile as it stands, the conditions across the league poor for most players who aren’t internationals who know that they need better conditions to survive but remain afraid to ask.

The last thing they want is their basic and simple demands to be what causes another implosion. Well beyond its first inception, the league has never before reached a fifth year so this is new ground being broken every day, NWSL players all fully aware of the history and previous incarnations. So do we want to copy this league? It’s hardly as if we can copy the draft to help with the parity anyway – the draft the exact opposite of how the Premier League works.

Even just trying to copy the USWNT, as a team they’re heading south not north, the team looking weak and wonky even as they found their way to a World Cup in 2015, other nations on the rise as the US persist with the same old mistakes.

The team relies on its own physicality over tactical or technical skill, but with more professionalism across world football other nations are catching up on the physical side leaving the US with little in the way of an edge.

Mark Sampson’s motto about fitness ahead of Euro 2017 would suggest it was the ace up his sleeve but when it came down to it, that extra mile the players could run meant for nothing as they were well beaten by a superior Dutch team – who certainly didn’t have 11 full-time players in their starting XI. The semi-final did little to showcase Sampson’s managerial skills, little in the way of a Plan A, nothing in the way of a B or C – so where did extra strength get England? Another Euro semi-final, which, whilst more than the embarrassing group exit of 2013 wasn’t as good as getting to the final in 2009.

When looking around Europe alone, France and Sweden both boast talented squads with new coaches in Corinne Diacre and Peter Gerhardsson who look to be getting them back on track, with a further two years Steffi Jones and Martin Sjögren could yet make Germany and Norway formidable sides.

The Netherlands nor Denmark can or should be written off and improved league conditions may even see Italy begin to rise again, Spain the persistent question mark. All these are before we begin to take into account Asian teams, Alen Stajcic’s Matildas due some good luck at a tournament to match their scintillating form and then there’s China and Japan... All teams that bring something different to the table, where do England figure? How far will route one and physicality get them in France?

Identity and brand

Although that’s getting away from the point and looking more global it does tie into the FA trying to inject a more American feel to women’s football in England and the greater problem is simply that it’s simply the wrong cultural identity.

The crowds the USWNT pull are respectful and certainly surpass the crowds you’d see at a Lionesses game – even if it were scheduled better – and there are numerous reasons for this. There is little sense in the English trying to tap into the American cultural identity, just as there’s no sense in them trying to find and replicate the boom the Dutch national team has seen following on from the Euros. There’s no way the Germans could tap into the Spanish culture or the French into the Swedish, they are different footballing cultures that are rooted in national identity and can’t just be superimposed elsewhere.

So instead of going to the US to learn about how they market themselves, the FA should have listened to English fans – something one might suggest is a foreign concept to them – should have investigated and questioned what would get the man or the woman on the street to an England game. What about a women’s game… what about a women’s league? What does being a sports fan mean to you, how do you show that you enjoy football, what is your, what is your national identity, what is our national identity?

This again goes back to the restructure of WSL, to making it commercially viable. Yes, as it is, there are far too many mismatches in WSL and you feel it far more than you would in the FBL, the Dam or anywhere else.

What you have in WSL this season is watching how the season pans out – even just ignoring the rollopings that Chelsea have been handing out – there are likely to be distinct groups in the league and watching them unfold has the potential to be fascinating. You have the top group, your assumed top three.

Then Birmingham, are they going to be able to find balance under Marc Skinner and push the top three? What of Reading (a club that has seen large investment and a team almost completely alien to the one that only got promoted at the end of 2015) and how will Sunderland fare as part-timers? Where will Liverpool fall – their results over the Spring Series weren’t too good and their start to the new season hasn’t been that convincing, will they pick up and if so how and when? Then what of the three newcomers to WSL – and the assumed bottom pack – will Yeovil avoid finishing dead last? What of Bristol and Everton and their youthful sides?

There are questions, there is interest, it doesn’t have to be, “Ohhh but they got thumped, how boring!

Despite all these subplots, the interest for me this season would have been WSL 2 and watching Durham, the Belles and Millwall battle always for the top spot. The league open like never before but those are the three that stick out as those who’ll be up there come the end of the season, all three playing different brands of football from very different areas of the country, the one thing they all have in common is a distinct lack of EPL affiliation. And if that Premier League affiliation is as important to the FA as some would suggest then why would the Belles, Durham or Millwall bother when a team who finishes lower than them – maybe not even in WSL 2 but lower down the pyramid – would be more likely to get the nod.

Inorganic

In 2017 in England, one of the riches countries in the world for football we saw a women’s team not just go bust, but the players become homeless because the men’s team had long been in financial troubles and the new owner wasn’t willing to pour money into the black hole of the women’s team.

Notts County Ladies running at a huge deficit just to try to compete with the best in the country and as their results would suggest, still failing to do so. 2017 in England. Whilst the new league could offer more stability in terms of that, it (once again) feels forced, inorganic and watered down, it feels like a Chinese Super League-NWSL hybrid. But it gets away from what makes football so interesting. Organic evolution is what draws people in, how teams build and grow, success isn’t overnight it’s earned, sweated, cried and bleed for.

Look at Damallsvenskan, look at the Frauen-Bundesliga, D1F, Toppserien, Liga Iberd… you get the point, look at those leagues, teams have their heyday and fade away, other teams rise as others fall. Football is alive, leagues and teams breathe and grow, they mature and they evolve.

This moment right now for WSL is arguably, the Chelsea-City bubble as a few years ago we had the Arsenal bubble, the Gunners consistent with their levels, silverware never too far away, always one or two teams to challenge them. The 70s and 80s the Liverpool bubble in men’s football in England. The first eight years of the Danish women’s league split between Ribe and Femina and before Legia Warsaw began to reign supreme in the Polish Ekstraklasa, Wisła Kraków were strong, following on from where Górnik Zabrze had left off. Teams rise and fall, in women’s football as in men’s, in England and elsewhere.

Periods of dominance. They’re not everlasting, other teams can find investment, bring players through their academies, sign the undiscovered gems, work with a coach that just gets the best out of their players.

One of the most beautiful things is the football pyramid, look at Yeovil, look at how they’ve risen, season after season, getting better and better before finally earning promotion to WSL 1. It’s felt and seen all around England, look at a team like Bournemouth who were in League Two as recently as 2010 and now they’re in their third season in the EPL, competing with the big dogs.

 You can go down the pyramid, you can go up the pyramid but you don’t just fall out of existence; but without relegation and promotion, there is no pyramid. And those who do pull themselves up from the bottom tiers do so bit by bit, through hard-work, good recruitment and understanding, not just because they found a sugar daddy.