Spain vs. Scotland: Quality vs. Competitiveness

When you think of the Scottish Premier League, for most people two teams come to mind: Rangers and Celtic. And with good reason – no team other than Rangers or Celtic has won the SPL title since Aberdeen (managed by one Sir Alex Ferguson) in 1985. Think about that: in 26 years, only two teams have won the league title. (Side note: how on earth do all the other teams still have a following? Talk about loyalty…)

Does this kind of dominance sound familiar? Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated La Liga in such a way that they are going down this same path. At the start of every season, the only debate is: which of these two teams will win the title? For the rest of the league, third place is the new first place.

But something memorable happened in the SPL this week. On November 5, Rangers had a 15 point lead over Celtic at the top of the table. Rangers midfielder Nika Jelavic foolishly claimed the title was already won. In less than two months, Celtic erased that lead and went top of the league courtesy of a 1-0 win over Rangers last week. A stunning achievement by anyone’s standards.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen in La Liga. Why? The simple answer: neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid ever falter to the extent that Celtic did. They are far too good for the rest of the league. But why are they too good? The complex answer: money. Barca and Real have completely monopolized La Liga. You can look up the damning financial statistics in magazines and online articles. Managers of ”smaller” teams sometimes send out weakened squads against Barca or Real, so they can concentrate on a later game they have a chance of winning.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching El Clasico as much as everyone else. But what’s the fun in following a team that wins 98% of the time? And what’s the fun in following a league where the top two teams have such a financial advantage over the rest that they will continue to dominate for many years to come? If you’re not Barca or Real, and you’re not fighting relegation, what’s the point?

This seems contradictory, as I said that Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scotland for two and a half decades now. The difference is that because the quality of the SPL has gone down, they can no longer compete with the best leagues in Europe and therefore, have consistently lost money. Rangers’ “big” signing this past summer was midfielder Nika Jelavic, who cost £4 million, which was nothing ten years ago let alone today. The best players for other clubs like St. Johnstone and Hearts don’t go to the big two; they usually go to England. Rangers and Celtic no longer have a financial advantage over the other teams; their allure is in their illustrious histories.

So where is the preference justified? First, there is little to no diving in Scotland. Face it: in La Liga the theatrics are embarrassing, frequent and pathetic. In Scottish football you better be ready to get the crap kicked out of you. If you’re going to roll around in agony, something in your body better be broken. Second is the fans’ intensity. Many European soccer teams have intriguing histories, but Scottish teams in particular are rooted deeply in both sporting and religious connections, qualities that still reside in today’s fans. Many pundits have said that the Old Firm derby is the most intense rivalry in the world, and with good reason. The passion, both on the field and in the stands, is unmatched.

Third, and most importantly, the gap between many of the teams is closing. Celtic and Rangers remain the big two, but as Celtic’s turnaround has proved, both teams have been through rough patches. Any team can beat any other team. Celtic lost at home to St. Johnstone. Rangers lost to St. Mirren. Aberdeen, almost unthinkably, were rock bottom of the league in November. Surprises are much more frequent in the SPL than La Liga, making the ride much more fun to be a part of.

History, an old-school feel, and passion. I’ll gladly sacrifice some quality in favor of more competitiveness and less of the theatrics. And so, I’d wager, does Sir Alex Ferguson.