Competition is the essence of sports. The hope that your team will finally make it this time drives the fans again and again to buy a ticket and go to the game.
Competition is also the reason behind a format such as the playoff, which basically means the champion will only be decided following the last match of the season. That is why American professional leagues introduced the draft and salary caps, and it’s definitely working. The days of the Celtics winning eight titles in a row in the NBA or the Yankees doing it five times in a row in the World Series are long gone, even a three-peat is extremely rare in America these days.
Cross the Atlantic though, and it’s a completely different story.
The European soccer season, which has just ended, was the most unbalanced we have ever seen. Out of the five major leagues, four champions were decided as early as April and even in Italy, where there was somewhat of a race, Juventus won the title with two games remaining, far from any last minute drama.
Is it any different in the local Cups? Those romantic tournaments where a small club can rise to glory by beating a local giant in the final. Think again. Out of the five champions in those major leagues, three are also the Cup holders, and they all did it with very one-sided wins in their respective finals. England is one of the two places where the Cup holder is not the champion, but you can hardly describe Chelsea as a small club. Germany is the only place where this Cinderella story did happen, as Frankfurt beat Bayern Munich to win their first title in 30 years.
Why are things so uncompetitive in European soccer? The answer, of course, is money. But there is more to it. There have always been bigger and smaller clubs, but the gaps in money are so big now they allow the big teams not only to get better, but they also use that money to make sure their competitors stay small.
Take the Bundesliga for example. Bayern Munich was always the strongest team, but they constantly faced good and strong opponents who challenged them with an offensive inspired game. The last one to do so was Borussia Dortmund, who won two successive titles at the beginning of the decade, and finished second the following two seasons, along with a Champions League Final in 2013. During that four year period, they were led by Polish striker Robert Lewandowski. How did the Bavarians react? They gave Lewandowski an offer he could not refuse, and he moved to Munich four years ago. Needless to say, Bayern Munich won all of the Bundesliga titles since his arrival. How about Dortmund? There were times during those four seasons in which they were closer to relegation than to the championship.
The French example is even more astonishing. Monaco did the unthinkable last season and won the title, which was won the previous four seasons by the billionaires from Paris St. Germain. They did it thanks to a brilliant season from wonder kid Kylian Mbappe. The Parisians reacted quickly, their message was “if you can’t beat him, make sure he joins you.” Did they really need him when they had Neymar and Cavanni on their squad? Probably not, but they had to make sure he is out of Monaco, and if you have to pay for the second most expensive transfer in history to make it happen, so be it.
On to Italy, where Napoli strongly challenged Juventus this season, only to run out of steam in the final month. They would have loved to have the help of their previous outstanding striker, Gonzalo Higuain, but he moved to Juve last summer for an estimated fee of 90 million Euros, by far the highest ever paid by a Serie A club.
Is there any chance for a change? At least a hint of competition? Don’t count on it. The big clubs know very well they are the ones that fans tune in to watch, and their respective leagues would not dare to hurt them.
As for the European Federation, an attempt to implement financial fair play regulations was made into a joke by PSG who “loaned” Mbappe for a season since they could not officially transfer him after that huge Neymar deal, everybody knew they will complete the deal this coming summer. If you have looked to them for any assistance, look away.
Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Juve have won the Serie A for the past seven seasons, Bayern Munich did the same for the past six years in Germany and PSG won the French championship five of the last six seasons. All three will probably be the champions next season again. In Spain it will be again a race between Barcelona and Real Madrid and it is quite hard to imagine anyone challenging Manchester City in the Premier League, the one league we thought had some kind of competition.
For those who love great soccer quality but with no surprises, Europe is the place. If you want surprises and last minute dramas on the way to the title, America is the place for you.