The 2009 Champions League Final had an enormous billing. The two best sides from the two best leagues in world football were to meet, and on the pitch many predicted that it would be a battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s two best players.
Usually going into a final of such magnitude, you have a favourite and an underdog, and that aspect adds a kind of ‘David & Goliath’ quality to the build up. But in the lead up to this match, no one could pick between United’s all action, intense brand of football and Barcelona’s patient and beautiful possession play; between the twin powers of English and Spanish club football.
But now that Barcelona have been crowned as the kings of Europe, and at a canter after Eto’os 10th minute opener, can we conclude that the Spanish dominance of the international stage applies also to club competitions? With a victory at Euro 2008 and now the Champions League trophy heading to Spanish soil, is it really the case that Spain is the pinnacle of European and World football at present?
With regard to the international game, I feel there is little doubt. Spain’s side is as complete as any national side that I’ve ever seen, and I think they will certainly be the team to beat come next year’s World Cup in South Africa. The mercurial Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas feeding Torres and Villa is enough to make any football fan drool uncontrollably.
But as for the lie of power in European club football, I think Barça’s status as Champions is certainly deserved, but isn’t reflective of the whole. They won the Spanish Primera División at a canter this season, and their closest rivals in that contest, Real Madrid, were easily dealt to by Liverpool in the Champions League’s first knockout round.
The Catalan club’s demolition of Bayern Munich at the same stage demonstrated the weakness of the German league and the absence of any Italian clubs in the quarter finals made it clear that that traditional powerhouse is struggling. However, all four English sides qualified for the quarter finals, and the maximum possible of three of them progressed to the semi-finals alongside Barça, as Liverpool lost out to Chelsea in arguably the tie of the tournament.
That the odds were stacked so against a Spanish victory at that stage make Barça’s victory all the more admirable, but without one of the most controversial refereeing performances in recent memory, they would never have beaten Chelsea to make the final. So I have to say that while Barcelona probably are the best club side in the world (and perhaps one of the greatest ever), I think they alone fly the flag for the Spanish league.
In contrast, the power of the Premier League remains dominant, with four clubs all at the pinnacle of the world game. However, ultimately this dominance hasn’t translated into success for the English sides this time around and on the international scene England have struggled of late too, with the presence of Ronaldo and so many other foreign stars hampering the development of English talent, while La Liga has more Spanish players, and only the occasional Messi.
Indeed, one could very well argue that the Premier League’s success has brought about the downfall of the England national team. In contrast, Spain’s league doesn’t have such a foreign presence, but their national side is flourishing as a result. So wherever the power lies in European football, the only conclusion to be drawn is that at present, Spain truly are the best footballing nation in the world.