Futbol. It’s the world’s sport. There isn’t a corner of our planet that hasn’t been touched by “The Beautiful Game.” Kids with no shoes, no fields, no soccer balls even, play in the slums of Mumbai, on the frozen steppes of Mongolia or the in jungles of the Amazon. And they all want to be the next Pele, the next Becks, Messi or CR7.
Unfortunately, those same kids sometimes keep playing as adults when maybe they should have given up the dream. Unfortunately, countries with no legitimate means to succeed, try to support professional leagues that stagger along at the bottom of the world soccer mountain. Unfortunately, countries that should have great pro soccer leagues find themselves hamstrung by tradition, the public’s whims, lazy developmental leagues, and careless finances.
The best of the best need no introduction to global soccer fans. The Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy), La Liga (Spain), and Ligue 1 (France) all have bunches of the world’s top players from almost any country that plays soccer. They also have hugely successful academy and national team programs that feed into their success. The English (although frustrated at the national team level) not only have the absolute best league in the world in the EPL (English Premier League) but their next tier down, The Championship, has been ranked as high as fourteenth in the world!
But which are the worst leagues? And why are they so damn bad? Here, without further ado, are 15 of ‘em. Now keep in mind, we’re looking at leagues in supposedly major soccer-playing countries. Yes, of course the level of actual play is going to be worse in some bare-bones, barely professional Uzbekhi league, but for the overall experience, the leagues listed here should all be doing a lot better.
Quick, does anyone know if the Canadians even have a league? Should they have a league??? Well, the answers are yes and maybe. The CSL is the top professional league in Canada. It’s ranked at the Tier 3 level in Canada’s soccer pyramid. That’s right, the top league in the country is at the 3rd level. That’s because the good teams in Canada all compete in the US. Toronto FC, Vancuver Whitecaps FC and Montreal Impact all play in MLS while FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury FC toil in NASL. The CSL has also had major issues with match fixing and the RCMP (that’s the Mounties, ya all) is still investigating. “Oh Canada,” indeed.
It’s probably somewhat unfair to MLS. The league has been listed as high as 12th in power-rankings. It’s expanded, a sign of growth and continues to draw “good” crowds. The quality has improved with the return of US nationals like Clint Dempsey (formerly in the EPL), the addition of internationals (Robbie Keane of Ireland and the LA Galaxy comes to mind) and tons of “older”EPL players (Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, for one). But… A country with a huge infrastructure dedicated to professional sports can’t do better? Yes, MLS averages 18,000 fans per game. But c’mon. NFL training camps average 18,000 fans! TV numbers for MLS are horrific (come back Becks!) and nobody cares during the NFL and MLB seasons. Sorry soccer.
13 Saudi Arabia
You’d think with their relative stability in a region not known for it, the Saudis would be doing a lot better with their pro league. In fact, you’d think that with their incredible wealth, the Saudis would have just bought one of the big-time leagues by now and transported it, stadiums and all, to their own country. But nah, the Saudi Premier League just keeps on playing matches with players and teams no one outside of Saudi Arabia has ever heard of. C,mon’ Saudis! Buy some players and form a super-team!
Here’s another one that just doesn’t make any sense. India is the second-largest country in the world by population. You’d think that at least some of those people would be interested in the world’s biggest sport. And maybe they are. Sort of. But the Indian Hero Super League wasn’t even founded until 2013. So, yeah, they probably have an uphill climb ahead of them to take fans away from Cricket. Because all 1.3 billion Indians really, really love their Cricket. In fact, The India Premier League has an average salary of over $4 million for its Cricketers, 2nd in the world to the NBA average salary. Good luck soccer.
Croatians like their soccer. They’ve had some success by the national team and by players moving on to the major leagues. Dinamo Zagreb is a well-known club on the European cup circuit. But the Prva HNL has more than it’s fair share of problems too. From match-fixing scandals to swastikas appearing on fields to flare-wielding fans, the league and its supporters are “active.” The walk-off staged by club Hajduk Split in their Derby against Dinamo has to take the cake, though. Split wouldn’t play Dynamo because some of its fans were detained by police. For no other reason, it appears, than that they were Split supporters. You know a league is bad when it can’t even hold its biggest match.
We think the problem with the Australian A-League might be similar to India’s but with a twist. Australians really love their sports. But rather than obsess over one sport, like Cricket-mad India, Australians obsess over Australian Rules Football, Rugby, Cricket, the Olympics and just about anything else they can find. Everyone in Australia also seems to be out there playing sports themselves, rather than sitting in front of the TV watching sports, which is the proper way to do things. The A-League isn’t terrible but we think those naughty Aussies just aren’t dedicating themselves to the game enough. Which is crazy ‘cause we sure wouldn’t want to surf, sail or swim in those waters.
The J-League is about like Australia’s A-League. The Japanese do like their soccer. They’ve hosted the World Cup. Both the men’s and particularly the women’s national teams have done very well for themselves. Lots of people watch the J-League. But all of the best players in Japan want to play elsewhere. Until there’s a future in the J-League they’re going to keep doing that. And unless European and South American players start coming in droves (and why would they?) that’s not gonna happen.
It may not be very well-known but the Malaysian Super League should be. Just not for the reasons the league would probably like. The league has been rocked by scandals for years- scandals that never seem to go away. In ’94, over twenty players and coaches were kicked out of the league (and over 50 more suspended) for accepting bribes from other clubs. In a league of 12 teams that means almost a quarter of the league was dirty - good job Malaysia! In 2014 another dozen or more players were accused of fixing matches. Saying “these things go in cycles,” as the president of Malaysia did, just makes it more fun.
The Austrians are right there in the nexus of great world soccer. Neighbors Germany, France and Italy all have top-five leagues. Other “smaller” western European countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal have top-twenty leagues. So why not the Austrian Bundesliga? Well, nobody really knows. They should be right up there with the resources and geographical proximity to greatness they have. And yet they’re so not close that in 2008, over 20,000 fans signed a petition to their national team to drop its Euro bid. What!??! Clearly, home-grown soccer in Austria has to scale an alp-sized mountain to get to the top.
5 The Democratic Republic of Congo
Of all the leagues mentioned in this list, the Congo Premier League has the most ridiculous reason for being included. Really, no one should care enough to even put such a marginal league on any list. But we aim to please. Way back in 2005, due to widespread illegal scalping of tickets, the league manned all of its turnstiles with deaf and dumb teens. They figured the kids, with their conditions, were incorruptible. Think again! As of 2015, scalpers have learned sign language and the corruption continues. Great league.
Maybe just maybe Poland has cleaned up its act. The country did, after all, co-host Euro 2012. But as recently as 2008, seven clubs from the PFF’s (Polish Football federation) top tier league were demoted. No, not relegated because of poor play on the field. Demoted because of match-fixing. That’s right, the always-around specter of match fixing got so deeply embedded in the Polish league that almost 30 clubs were implicated and multiple champion Widzew Lodz was one of the clubs actually busted. Think that’s bad enough? The entire governing board of the federation stepped down themselves due to scandal after busting the clubs.
If you’re a referee don’t head to Columbia. Twenty league refs have been killed there by enraged fans or mobsters. The mobsters apparently run the whole darn thing- former superstar goalkeeper Rene Higuita was tight with Pablo Escobar (you know, the Narcos dude). League and national team defender Andres Escobar was killed by angry “fans” after giving up an own goal in the World Cup. So we guess, if you’re a player… don’t head for Columbia either.
Romania has a well-deserved and historic reputation for being hmmm… how do we say this nicely? How about completely freakin’ corrupt??? So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the investigation into an alleged match-fixing incident from 8 years ago is still going on. At the heart of the scandal is Liga 1 mainstay Steau Bucharest who offered fellow club Steau Bucharest almost $2 million Euros to knock off rival CFR Cluje so that Stea Bucharest would win the title. Apart from the fact that we wonder why Universitatea wouldn’t already be trying to win, the best part of the story is that the Stea owner claimed the money was for “chocolates and candy.” Guess he has a sweet tooth.
Here’s another league that should be doing so much better. They’ve got money, they’ve got talent, they’ve got passionate fans, and they’ve got tradition. Oh yeah, that’s the problem. Tradition. Everyone knows the top two teams in the Scottish Premiership are Rangers and Celtic. That’s because, since 1890, Rangers have won 54 times and Celtic have won 46 titles. 100 freakin’ titles between two clubs in 115 years. Sharing 3rd place are Heart of Midlothian, Aberdeen and Hibernian, who each have a whopping 4 cups. Yay team. The two “Old Firm” clubs have also claimed second place 61 times. So yeah, Scottish soccer kinda sucks for the other ten top teams- we wonder why they even bother.