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Tiers of Leagues in Europe

In recent weeks and months, there’s been some discussion on two of the sources for soccer news I check routinely — Clever Football and the World Soccer Daily podcast — about the tiers of leagues in Europe and where MLS would fit in.

Personally, I think that particular debate shouldn’t even be had; it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

MLS, of course, has a salary cap in place, plays a different schedule than most of the European leagues, and is based in a country where its teams are in cities that aren’t really in close geographic proximity. This affects travel time and style of travel, two factors that don’t play any role whatsoever in Europe. The style of play, too, is different; MLS is a highly Latin-influenced league that plays at a slower, more possession-oriented tempo. Playing games in the middle of summer and dealing with the oppressive heat that can be found in many MLS cities is another contributing reason to the tempo, and again, that doesn’t happen to as large of a degree in Europe.

If all things and variables were equal, which they aren’t and likely won’t ever be, I’d say that the best MLS teams (New England, Houston, DC United, and Chivas USA) would battle to stay out of the relegation zone in the Premiership, fight for a playoff spot in the Championship, and contend for a UEFA Cup spot in the SPL. The worst teams (Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy) would struggle to stay afloat in the Championship, and maybe finish mid-table in League One. I am by no means an expert on MLS and to be honest, don’t pay too much attention to the league until closer to the playoffs, so those are just broad, perhaps slightly misinformed opinions of comparing MLS teams to teams in Britain. Again, all things would be equal in those scenarios.

However, we can have a valid, legitimate discussion about the tiers of leagues in Europe. The prevailing notion is that three leagues — the Premiership, Serie A, and La Liga — are by themselves at the top end. Doesn’t really take a genius to come up with that.

After “Tier 1”, though, things start to get interesting. There are 49 different top domestic leagues recognized by UEFA outside of the three already mentioned, some of them more established than others.

In coming up with the groups that you’ll see in a minute, I considered a couple of things:

1. What is the OVERALL STRENGTH of the league? Yes, Rangers and Celtic are solid teams and are capable of making a run in the UEFA Cup and/or Champions League every year. Aside from them, though, the Scottish Premier League really is not much to brag about and I’d go as far as to say that it’s a weak league. I want to see leagues that are realistically at least four or five teams deep.

2. How successful are the league’s top teams in Europe? I know what I just said about leagues having more than just one or two good teams. If that’s the case, though, I want to see those teams progress far in Europe. I want to see relatively lower-level leagues still able to send their champion or runner-up (or third place, however many teams a league gets into Europe) and have those teams do something against their peers on the continent. The French league (Ligue 1) is fine, but it seems like teams like Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and others get bounced out of European competition early every year. How can I take a league seriously if the best they have to offer doesn’t stack up against teams of generally equal reputation and stature?

So, here’s the rough grouping system of top-flight domestic leagues I came up with, by country. The order in which the country are listed isn’t important; that is, I’m not saying that the Premiership is a better league than La Liga, or that La Liga is better than Serie A.

Tier 1: England, Spain, Italy
Tier 2: Germany, Holland, Portugal, France
Tier 3: Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Scotland, Norway, Belgium
Tier 4: Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel
Tier 5: Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Wales, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark
Tier 6: Hungary, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Belarus, Poland
Tier 7: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herezgovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, FYR of Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, San Marino, Liechtenstein

Feel free to disagree..I’m sure you will.

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  1. Paolo

    April 17, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    I think Cyprus should be much higher no? The Cypriot league is suppose to be very strong. I believe as good as Israel.

  2. Pingback: Lietuvos “A” lygos paj?gumas « Futbolo verslas

  3. Anonymous

    May 6, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    If you want the mls to improve it needs to be a international league. A good majority of fans a are non white americans to begin with. If you ask me the MlS needs to have the best players from all over the Americas instead of giving David Beckham more then every player in the league combined. That is bad business and just plain dumb. The MlS still dosent know how to target its real audiance. Which is not based upon rich soccer moms in the suburbs

  4. Kartik

    April 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    “The American league too is improving but that is because of the large number latin american players not the American footballers whose quality is barely conference level.”

    Yup my fear entirely. I am a national team person first club football second and I can say without a doubt that the influx of latin players is going to hurt the US National Team. Certainly MLS has improved thanks to them and the league now as Michael aptly put in his initial post has teams that could fight to avoid relegation in Europe’s big leagues. But like the Premier League that’s entirely down to foreign players and is not a trend as a proud American I wish to see continued. I like the idea of seeing 3-5 foreigners per team, but now you can have 8 non green card foreigners per team plus those with green cards and other exemptions your looking at some teams with over half their players being foreigners and that is not the spirit under which MLS was formed.

  5. Michael

    April 14, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    If you notice, this article is about the leagues in EUROPE. I didn’t mention the A-League in Australia once.

  6. Say no to Yank Ownership

    April 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Italy is most certainly first tier.

    Greece should go up? Why?

    The A-League in Australia is under rated.

    The American league too is improving but that is because of the large number latin american players not the American footballers whose quality is barely conference level.

  7. tampasoccer

    April 14, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Italy should drop to second tier.
    Sweden should also drop down: their domestic league is brutal and 3/4 quality players playing for top teams can’t mask that.
    Greece should go up, in place of Belgium: Belgian football has struggled for at least 2 decades now.
    Other than that: you are on point.

  8. Andrew

    April 14, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Wales in the fifth tier??? With the likes of Romania, Denmark, etc.? When was the last time a Welsh team made it past the first qualifying round for the Champions league?

    Surely a mistake here.

  9. Michael

    April 14, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Thank you, Sheps. My mistake. I knew that FC Vaduz played in Switzerland and wins the Liechtenstein Cup almost every year, seeing as they are the only professional team to compete. I figured that because there was such a thing as the Liechtenstein Cup, they had a domestic league comprised of semi-pro team, but you’re right, they don’t.

    Again, thank you for the correction.

  10. Sheps

    April 14, 2008 at 5:12 am

    FTR: Liechstenstein doesn’t have a league, they all play in the Swiss leagues. Their sole UEFA Cup qualifying spot goes to the winner of the Liechstenstein equivalent of the FA Cup, normally FC Vaduz.

  11. March

    April 13, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    I agree with this for the most part, but I think Norway and Sweden’s a bit overrated on this.. they’re about even with Denmark or lower.. as Copenhagen and Brondby are always winning the Scandanavian Royal League…. and I think Romania’s a tier underrated. Just a few years ago they had two teams in the UEFA Cup quarters, and would have had one in the finals (Steau Bucharest) had not been for Boro’s amazing comeback.

  12. Ivan

    April 13, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    My apologizes to Michael.

    On to Fred, was Fred MVP? i’m not sure i think it was a draw between archie and danny allsopp…

    Fred was successful in Australia i agree and Victory were poor cause we didn’t find an adequate replacement (We got Costo Rican World Cup 2006 – Carlos Hernandez who couldn’t deal with the pace early on).

    I don’t think we are miles behind. As i said depth wise we aren’t there yet but this league i believe is heading in the right direction, we have a youth league coming soon, we have olyroos playing in the first team in most of the a-league teams we also have players who aren’t past their sell buy date coming back to Australia.

    Adelaide for instance finished behind Melbourne Victory in 6th place yet are top of their group in their second go at the Asian Champions League. Considering a season ago they weren’t anywhere near in the ACL yet finished runners up in both the regular and final series of the A-league… a season later they end up beating Pohang Steelers of South Korea away from home.


    April 13, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    The A League Michael referred to was the old American A-League now known as USL-1.

    USL-1 is actually about as good as MLS, so it’s tough to really justify them being 2/3 tiers apart. Keep in mind in US Soccer, MLS has your 1st and 4th tier players because of the salary cap while your mid level players who can’t fit under the salary cap and aren’t stars are on USL-1 teams.

    USL-1 teams all have 6-8 players better than the bottom 6-8 players on MLS squads. USL-1 has a less latin style, more european and thus many USL-1 sides would fit in European leagues better than the very latin styled MLS.

    As for the Australian A league, Fred was the MVP of the league two years back with the Melbourne Victory. He then moved to MLS where he is a slightly above average player. So while the Aussie A League is improving it is still miles behind MLS, the K-League and J-League as far as overall depth. The top players in the A-league are good but the depth isn’t there with the other three leagues I mentioned.

  14. Ivan

    April 13, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Michael – A-league 6th and 7th teir? did i read that correctly? Okay the Aleague is only four years old but if you watch the progress over three seasons and the progress in tournaments such as the Asian Champions League…then i would whole heartly disagree. A-League is not at the level of MLS for sure when it comes to depth but we are not that far behind.

    Melbourne Victory who finished fifth in the league missing out on finals football lost the other night to J-League team Gamba Osaka 4-3. Osaka were quality throughout but for large extent of the game we matched them. Interesting enough Osaka are in their actual season whereas the Victory havent played a competitive game since January….

    I wonder how much A-League do you actually watch Michael? And if your barometer is the Pan Pacific joke of a tournament than you are deeply mistaken.

    Agree with how you did the tiers for european football leagues….

  15. kat kid

    April 13, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Why do the French and Portuguese Leagues get so much credit? They have similarly skewed lists of champions and outside of the Special One’s foray, they have had little more success as of late than Celtic or Rangers in Europe.

    England, Spain and Italy have some of the top clubs in the world and some serious depth.

    Germany has tremendous depth, but no great teams.

    All of the other leagues have 1-3 teams capable of advancing past the group stages in Europe but no real depth in real quality. Just because PSG was a G-14 club does not mean they are worth a crap.

    If it were me:
    Tier 1: England, Spain, Italy
    Tier 2: Germany
    Tier 3:, Holland, Portugal, France, Turkey, Scotland

  16. Michael

    April 13, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    As I said, it’s difficult to have this debate about the leagues in the US because of the variables I talked about in the post.

    If all things were equal, I’d probably put MLS in the 4th tier and USL-1, the former A-League, in the 6th or 7th tier. Again, it’s like comparing apples to oranges because of the salary cap, travel, style of play, etc.

  17. tiger

    April 13, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Michael, I quite agree with most of your analysis (you could competently argue a few of the choices but overall it looks good). And I’m convinced that the EPL is the best football league in the world. As a Yank I’m curious, and just for argument sake, where would you place the US professional soccer leagues (MLS and A League) in these tiers? I’m thinking in the 5 or 6 slot.

  18. Michael

    April 13, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Kartik, to answer your question about Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, i’d say that Argentina would be in the third tier and Brazil and Mexico would be at the bottom end of the second tier.

    From everything I read and hear, the Argentine league is regressing, and its signature teams, Boca and River Plate, aren’t doing much to change that impression.

  19. Kartik

    April 13, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Kartik Krishnaiyer said…
    Obviously I think the Bundesliga is the best league in the world top to bottom and especially at the Bundesliga 2 stage where I believe their is a huge gap between that 2nd division and the Segunda in Spain and the Championship in England. Serie B is closer in quality but still a somewhat distant 2nd.

    Honestly, Norway’s league couldn’t be very good. Nor could Sweden’s. We have Americans who couldn’t make a starting XI in MLS go to those leagues and become first teamers and in some cases make the leagues best XI. You can argue that some of that may have to do with tactics and coaching which are not as sophisticated in MLS as in Scandinavia.

    However, if this is the case, and MLS is in fact then equivalent to third tier European league, then where does Mexico, Argentina and Brazil rank? The eurosnobs who never watch Latin football assume those are bad leagues. But Michael I thank you for clarifying this argument. Obviously based on your system I can safely characterize Mexico, Brazil and Argentina at worse second tier European leagues. I believe the Mexican league where the super classico as good a derby match as you’ll find in the world is about to kick off is one of the five best leagues in the world. I’d put it in fifth right behind the four big European leagues. For those of you interested, Univision 8:30 pm ET tonight, the super Classico. Last year it had twice as many US viewers as the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Final, and five times as many as the champions league final.

  20. futboloverslas

    April 13, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    interesting but I would like to see a more clear explanation how you put european leagues by this tiers?

    recently Romania was doing quite well but it is only in tier 5

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