The comparative strength of the finest leagues in club soccer is a subject that will always divide opinion and is an argument that can never be effectively settled.
Tournaments like the European Champions League and the UEFA Cup give some indication, but the performance of a handful of teams in an elite competition does not tell the full story of a league's strength in depth.
Following David Beckham's recent comments defending the quality of Major League Soccer, when he hit back at criticism that he has moved to a "Mickey Mouse" league, Yahoo! Sports has put together a list of the best leagues in the game.
Our top five is based on entertainment, quality of play, competitiveness and global interest. It is followed by five more leagues that are emerging quickly and will continue to rise over the next few years.
TOP LEAGUES IN THE WORLD
1. Spain: La Liga. The fact that the Galacticos of Real Madrid went three years without winning the title says plenty about this entertaining and super-competitive product. It's the most stylish and enjoyable league in the world, packed with home-grown talent, South American class and a healthy sprinkling of international superstars.
"The technical ability of the players is superb in La Liga and it really is the most beautiful football to watch. There is always the Big Two of Real and Barca, but unlike the Premiership, you have several other teams who have broken through into the top four in recent years."
– Guillem Balague, journalist and broadcaster, "Revista de la Liga"
2. England: Premiership. The Premiership's popularity shows no sign of slowing down – television viewing figures around the globe are massive and foreign investors are falling over themselves to get a piece of the financial action. Only the tough-minded survive in a league that is played at a ferocious pace and is packed with passion. Many big names have had their reputations dented in the most pressurized competition in the game.
"Many of the best players on the planet are clamoring to come to the Premiership – it really is the place to be. There is still unpredictability, as shown by Aston Villa's victory over Chelsea, and the pace of the game always makes for entertaining matches."
– Steven Baker, news editor, Sky Sports News
3. Italy: Serie A. It used to be king of the castle, but too much focus on defense caused Serie A to slip behind the Spanish and English leagues in popularity. Also, the Italian game was rocked by a recent match-fixing scandal. Still, the color and passion of the fans still make big games a fascinating spectacle.
"In Italy, football is more like a religion than a game. The players realize how important it is to people's lives and treat their profession accordingly."
– Gianluca Vialli, former striker for Sampdoria, Juventus and Italy
4. Germany: Bundesliga. Full of technical efficiency, the Bundesliga is still good viewing, but it does not enjoy huge popularity outside of Germany. Many of the league's top stars, such as Michael Ballack, have sought big contracts elsewhere, but some classy imports like French star Franck Ribery, Italian striker Luca Toni and a steady stream of home-grown talent has kept standards high.
"The level of skills in the Bundesliga is as strong as the big leagues, but the TV money they receive is much lower. German players work on technique from a very young age and have a lot of ability, but apart from Bayern Munich it is hard for the clubs to compete with the big European teams.
– Oliver Richardt, soccer writer, Bild
5. France: Ligue 1. Greater strength in depth is needed if the French league is to rival the big four. Lyon has dominated for six years and is miles ahead of the field. A lucrative television deal has injected more cash in recent seasons, allowing an influx of imports, but the smaller clubs still struggle. Ligue 1 is a favorite destination for high-quality African players.
"The best clubs, especially Lyon, are as good as most in Europe, but there is a big drop in quality in the lower half."
– Eric Durand, French soccer writer
FIVE LEAGUES FOR THE FUTURE
1. United States: Major League Soccer. It will certainly take time, but if MLS goes about things the right way, the potential growth for its product is massive. Being based in the world's biggest consumer market is not always a blessing – it leads to greater competition for one thing – but if that market can be cracked, then the possibilities are endless. Critics and cynics point to the failure of the NASL three decades ago, yet those comparisons are unrealistic.
There are several reasons why MLS can achieve big-time success over the next decade or so. Here are a few:
• Effort – MLS can get better because it wants to. It sounds simple, but many leagues around the world are happy with their product and are not looking to take steps to improve. MLS will make mistakes, but by showing initiative and striving to become bigger, the league is getting an international reputation as something that is moving in the right direction.
• Immigrant population – Millions of soccer-mad Latin Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians continue to flock to this country. If the standard of soccer gets good enough, they will flock to games in droves.
• Lifestyle – The U.S. is seen as an attractive and cheap destination by many leading players. At present, superstar players like David Beckham are only likely to come to America at the end of their careers, but solid and dependable players from the level just below could have their heads turned earlier and increase the general levels of the league.
"I don't know whether it's ignorance or snobbery or whether it's that the people saying these things have never played the game or watched it being played here, but the standard is nowhere near as low as people have been saying it is. For a start, you have to be incredibly fit and physically strong to play here: America's a country, after all, that produces some of the best athletes in the world."
– David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy
2. Japan: J-League. The 2002 World Cup sparked massive interest in soccer in Japan, and the J-League continues to get stronger. Crowd support is solid, the standard of play is improving and the fact that most leading Japanese players opt to stay home points to further progress.
"Soccer is getting up there with baseball now in terms of popularity, and the quality has improved dramatically. In the past, players past their best were coming to Japan for a final payday, but rarely so now."
– Yohei Kasuga, Nikkan Sports
3. Australia: A-League. Fifteen years ago, soccer was sneered by fans of the national game, Aussie Rules Football, and it was regarded as a sport for foreigners or weaklings. Sound familiar? Well, it hasn't taken that long for things to change, and the popularity of the two-year-old A-League has been startling. An attractive lifestyle and good salaries will help the league continue to attract overseas talent and many Aussies based in Europe are now returning home to play a role in the A-League's growth.
"The A-League is the best thing to have happened to Australian soccer. It is a well structured and thoroughly professional operation which is smart enough to progress at a manageable rate. When players of the caliber of Brazil's Juninho come on board, everybody realizes that this is for real. Within 10 years you can expect the comp to be up to 12 teams, including maybe three from Asia, and 30,000-plus gates as the norm."
– Pat McLeod, chief sports writer, Gold Coast Bulletin
4. Mexico: Primera Division. This league has one of the highest budgets (funded mainly by wealthy businessmen with egos to match their bank balances) of any outside Europe and is starting to gain attention internationally for all the right reasons. Its future growth may be tied to Mexico's economy, but current signs are good. Clubs like Pachuca feel confident of holding their own, even against some of Europe's finest teams.
"The Mexican league is gaining respect in other countries and the levels are good. The playoffs are exciting and the best thing is that there are many clubs who are all desperately fighting to prove they are the best."
– Javier Cruz, Mexican soccer journalist
5. Russia: Premier League. If money talks loudest, then Russian soccer is screaming its head off. A soccer club is the plaything of choice for the new wave of billionaires who got rich after the fall of communism. Their fat wallets have paid for state-of-the-art stadiums, high-quality coaches and players and a bright future for the Russian league.
"Many Russian players now choose to stay at home instead of going elsewhere in Europe because there are good salaries available here. The standard is improving and Russia can be a powerhouse again, although it will take some time."
– Rinat Dassaev, former Soviet Union goalkeeper and Russian football expert