Domestic inequality: a recipe for European Success?

A few years back in an influential book, The Spirit Level, the authors made the argument that  among developed nations high levels of income inequality result in more crime, lower life expectancy and more obesity among other things. Their view was clear – inequality is a bad thing. And it is a view that many subscribe to, but when it comes to football is the reverse true? Is inequality actually a good thing?

One striking example of inequality being correlated with footballing success is Spain. The national team have enjoyed a period of international dominance with a World Cup win 2010, bookended by European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012. Spanish clubs have also collected four European Cup wins since 2006 yet, with the exception of Athletico’s win in 2013/14, you have to go back to 2004 to find a winner outside the big two.

Similarly there are many who rail against the inequality of the premier league era. If the national team has not quite enjoyed the success of the Spanish, then English clubs three European Cup wins since 2005 puts them second only to their Spanish counterparts.

Could there be a relationship between the two? Does an unequal domestic league equal success at a European level?

There is a logic to this. Top clubs in unequal leagues are more likely to be assured of qualification to the Champions League, or the Europa League. This provides them and their players with regular experience of top-level continental competition. It also provides them with assured access to greater revenues through broadcast rights, ticket sales and sponsorship opportunities.

Clubs are then more likely to be able to attract top players whose financial lust and ambition can be equally sated. Importantly too clubs can engage in long-term planning with a much lower level of uncertainty. On the other hand clubs who face much tougher domestic competition to qualify for Europe will have much less experience, will not have assured access to revenues, and will find it difficult to plan long-term as qualification is not necessarily a given.

One way to measure a leagues level of equality is to look at the spread of wins. From this can be calculated coefficient of variation (in technical terms this is the percentage of the standard deviation against the league average). A high number means that the number of wins is far more spread out, therefore we can assume the league is more unequal.

I’ve done this for ten top leagues in the 2011/12 season. Against this I’ve taken the UEFA correlation points that that countries clubs achieved from European competition for the next season, 2012/13.

Correllation Coefficient of Var

As can be seen, there is no real relationship at all, so it would seem that European success is indifferent to the relative equality level of a countries domestic league. There is though a paradox at work. Taking Spain, if we exclude Real and Barca, then the Spanish Primera Division is actually incredibly equal, in 2011/12 just one win separated 7th and 17th place. It is, in effect, a duopoly. The coefficient of variation, takes the whole league into account, but in terms of European success, what matters most is the relationship of the teams at the very top to the rest of the field.

Now, instead of using the coefficient of variation, I’ve taken the difference in league wins between the club finishing in second place and the club finishing third. This measures how far ahead of the field the top two clubs are.

Correlation wins Uefa

This time the result does suggest a pattern – the larger the difference between second and third the better the nations collective performance in Europe the next season. In fact the correlation coefficient comes in at 0.64. Although important to remember this is just a snapshot it does suggest there may possibly be a relationship between how far ahead the top two clubs are in terms of their domestic league and how successful their European campaigns the next season are.



  1. It sounds feasible, taking results over several years would make it statistically more solid. But what about the consequences? Does it provide us with a more attractive (=unpredictable) football? Or will it lead to a competition where it is well-known who will win (out of two-three clubs) and the rest is left to battle for scraps?

    • I’ve just added a few more seasons in and the correlation becomes slightly weaker (averaging the difference in wins between 10/11 and 12/13 and the UEFA coefficients for 11/12 – 13/14 the correlation coefficient drops to a moderate 0.51), but there still seems to be a discernible pattern. The method I’ve used though is not much good when it comes to capturing oligopolies like England and Germany where there is a cluster of top clubs (if I drop both from the analysis the correlation goes from 0.51 to 0.77). I think it is something which will definitely benefit from more analysis and I’ll post the results in due course.

      In ‘Why England Lose’ there is a good discussion about whether uneven leagues are a better or worse spectacle, and they conclude that they are in fact they are preferred by fans, one of the reasons being that fans love seeing their teams against the big sides. I remain to be wholly convinced by that, but I think one interesting effect of more uneven domestic leagues, will be more even competition at the European level. PSG are a case in point, where the domestic league becoming more predictable means the beneficiaries will be more competitive in Europe. Though that’s just my opinion.

      • I think there are a number of ways to look at it, and the benefits are not very compatible. That is, uneven leagues may attract more money, but they result in a detachment from the sport from its support base. As the money gets bigger, its the money that runs the show, not the community service, that used to be the origin of football.

  2. Yes, that’s a very good point. I think it’s definitely an issue I’m keen to explore and write a lot more about as whilst there are positives, as you say there are also huge negatives.

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