Stylish Spaniards take on British bulldog spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


As much as the Champions League final will be a battle between the world's two dominant clubs, it's also an unofficial referendum on the quality of Spanish players compared with those from the British Isles.

Despite the influence of imported superstars such as Lionel Messi and Javier Hernandez, the line-ups of both Barcelona and Manchester United are likely to be dominated by homegrown talent.

In the second legs of the semi-finals, Barca started with eight Spaniards, and Real Madrid had four, while seven British or Irish players featured at some point for United. In contrast, both Chelsea and Arsenal used just three UK-born recruits in late-season league matches against the Red Devils.

While Manchester United's squad might have lacked the brilliant individuals of previous seasons, the fighting spirit of their British backbone helped them become the Premier League's number one team. In the same way, Barca seemed like a celebration of all that's good about La Liga: possession, passing and style with substance.

'Spanish and British players are so different and it all starts from the way they were introduced to the sport,' says Martin Tierney, a Scottish coach who has worked in Spain as a scout for British clubs such as Liverpool, Sunderland and Celtic. 'The Spanish game is focused on what to do in the final third of the field, using technical ability and speed, whereas coaching in the UK is more about not conceding goals.'

If Pep Guardiola can repeat his 2009 win over Alex Ferguson, it will be yet another boost for La Liga. Five of the past 14 winners of Europe's premier club competition were from Spain, compared with three from England. Yet the Premier League is still unrivalled as the world's most popular domestic championship.

'Quite simply, it is a myth than the EPL is better than La Liga,' says Tierney, who works as an Asian TV commentator on both leagues. 'You can put the EPL's popularity down to the world-class marketing and wonderful worldwide TV coverage. But La Liga is number one.'

In the same week that unfashionable Blackpool and Birmingham dropped out of the Premier League, 2003 Champions League semi-finalists Deportivo La Coruna were relegated from Spain's Primera Liga. Depor, from the nation's northwest, were league champions in 2000 and won the King's Cup in 1995 and 2002.

'The lower teams of La Liga are much stronger than those in England because of the higher quality of squad players, with the influx of South Americans,' says former Australia international Abbas Saad, now an Asia-based TV pundit. 'La Liga is definitely of a better technical standard.'

In January, not a single soul from the Premier League was named in the Fifa FIFPro World XI, while eight players from La Liga, including six Spaniards, were selected. In the past six years, only John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand made the elite. The fact two of them are defenders reinforces the stereotype about those who learn their trade in the British Isles.

'Apart from the fact that kids still play in the street with their friends in Spain, it can also be as simple as having better weather to enjoy their time on the ball that makes Spanish players technically stronger,' says Tierney. 'Growing up in the UK, young players are trying to stay warm in training so everything tends to be done in a hurry.

'Professional academies in the UK are excellent, but non-elite players are restricted because of weather and lack of access to good facilities. In Spain, local town councils offer great facilities and inexpensive coaching to families.'

During his time in Spain, Tierney witnessed La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) become both European and world champions despite a depressing economic recession.

England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and were eliminated in the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010. Now a coach at his own centre in the Malaysian beach resort of Penang, he believes the gap in class between the two nations continues to widen.

'British clubs have a lot more players with athletic strength who have become not bad footballers, while in Spain you have to be the complete package,' he said.

It's an over-simplification to call this final a clash between the Artists and the Artisans, especially with dazzling imports like Nani and Antonio Valencia in the United ranks, plus the technically underrated British player Wayne Rooney and Ferguson's tactical wizardry. But another Barca win would surely delight purists of the non-Anglophile variety.