• The Best Lesser-Known Football Leagues to Watch This Season

    Published Friday 04 August 2023 5:03pm

    16 min read

    Why not check out a lesser-known football league this season? Read about some of our favourite divisions outside the European top 5 on the WTM blog.

By WherestheMatch Team

It’s hard to deny the charm of a top European league. The vast funding available to clubs across countries such as England, Spain, and Italy guarantees the very best in footballing infrastructure as well as the means to attract many of the globes’ top talents. While the quality is undeniable, it’s the obsession with money that can sometimes feel suffocating:

From foreign billionaires throwing stacks of cash at teenagers to sway them into travelling thousands of miles from home on the promise of maybe getting an opportunity to train with the first team; that is, if the manager likes them enough not to send them on loan to the opposite side of the country to a club they’ve never even heard of. To local teams that look for any and every financial loophole to beef up their transfer funds, even if it’s clear to absolutely everyone that their new sponsor has built their wealth on the suffering of the impoverished.

Even the regulations implemented to try and combat financial disparity seem to have been left by the wayside. Manchester City have just won the Champions League whilst sitting on more than 100 financial doping charges, this was on the back of their 2020 European ban being overturned on account of the evidence being too outdated for the Court of Arbitration for Sports to do anything about.

The spirit of football feels somewhat tainted recently, and sometimes a refreshing break is needed to reignite one’s love of the game. What better way to do so than to enjoy a smaller, less publicised league where passion for the sport trumps the iron grip of our football overlords? While these lesser-known leagues certainly aren’t clear of all issues, their smaller scale means that they duck under many of the problems rife across the ‘mainstream’. Why not check out some of the below throughout the upcoming season?

Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (Brazil)

The Brazilians are notoriously football mad, and whilst their first division isn’t exactly renowned world-wide, the sheer population of the South American footballing superpower edges the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A into the top 10 most watched leagues worldwide. While viewership and match attendance clearly aren’t problems for Brazilian clubs, money often is and the average team is quite poor when compared to the European elite which is why so many of them struggle with regular poaching of their most talented youngsters. This is unfortunate since the development of youth is where the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A truly shines. Players such as Neymar, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Pele, Carlos Tevez, Roberto Carlos, Marcelo, and many more all had stints in the Brasileiro Série A with the league often giving them a chance at regular club football from a very young age. You never have to look very hard to find the ‘next big thing’ with almost every team having their own crop of local talent seemingly destined for greatness.

You can’t talk about the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A without mentioning technical ability. The Brazilians are known to be amongst the most skilful footballing nations with dribbling and flair taking centre stage even in their domestic league. This can be attributed primarily to the street football that many Brazilians play from a young age; locally referred to as ‘Ginga’, the nation’s finest all developed their skills by embodying the core principles of expression with the ball that defines this footballing style. Completely contrary to the elegant footwork of some of their more gifted players, the Brazilian league is also filled with over-aggressive defenders reminiscent of the early era Premier League. Red cards are given out pretty liberally and mass brawls are a trademark of any long-standing rivalry. As recently as 2018, a match had to be abandoned after the referee handed out nine red cards following an MMA style bust-up between the players of Vitória and Bahia in the creatively named ‘Ba-Vi’ derby.

The Brazilians weren’t especially interested in football initially. In fact, it wasn’t until 1888 that the first Brazilian football club - São Paulo Athletic Club – was founded, roughly a decade after British expatriates initially brought the game to South America. In the early years, it was the sport’s upper-class image that hurt its growth with top players coming primarily from affluent backgrounds. However, the ease with which football could be played meant that it quickly filtered down to poorer districts, with concrete alleyways taking the place of grass pitches. Nowadays football is everywhere in Brazil, and their passion for the sport makes every match a spectacle. Why not check out one of their top teams; SE Palmeiras, Santos FC, CR Flamengo, or Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, the next time they play?

Meiji Yasuda J1 League (Japan)

Before 1992, Japan didn’t have its own fully professional football league. For a relatively wealthy country with a lot of love for sports such as Baseball, Tennis, and Golf, it was surprising that the football renaissance came so late. Exposing the general populace to the sport seems to have been a major factor in growing its popularity with key events such as the Japanese-held 1993 FIFA under-17s World Championship and 2002 FIFA World Cup giving the country’s best the opportunity to showcase their abilities on the global stage. This burst of interest led to somewhat of a golden generation for the Japanese with players such as Kazuyoshi Miura (Santos and Genoa), Hidetoshi Nakata (Roma, Fiorentina, and Bolton Wanderers), and Shunsuke Nakamura (Celtic and Espanyol) all plying their trade across the late 90s and early 2000s. Having proven that football did have interest from the Japanese, the league saw a major reshuffle in 2005 when they decided to match the European League format on the back of already having introduced promotion and relegation several years prior. Since its inception, this change was met with widespread praise as the division had been running with a disjointed system. The league was split into two, with the winner from each playing in a two-legged fixture to decide the overall champion. Naturally, most of the time both sides were won by the same team which made the play-off fixtures completely obsolete. In line with these positive changes, the government have also announced the J League hundred-year vision – a plan through which they would look to create a hundred professional football clubs by 2092, which would be the hundredth anniversary of the league’s creation. Now decades later, the plan is well underway and has played a monumental role in improving youth and providing a strong foundation for both national and domestic teams.

If you were to describe the J1 League in a single word, that word would be competitive. In 2011 Kashiwa Reysol were promoted to the first division; they would go on to become champions in their first top flight season before being relegated again the season after that. In fact, ten different clubs have held the championship since 1993 and with there being very little in the way of a top four or top six, even the smaller clubs have a great chance to place highly. The J1 League is known for its youth development which has helped to nurture an attractive, fast-paced style of play that rewards creativity and flair. The physicality may be somewhat lacking if you’re used to watching the Premier League or Bundesliga, but there’s still plenty to enjoy for lovers of a hard tackle.

While they certainly don’t have the same level of funding as some of the Europe’s elite (or the rapidly emerging Saudi League), the J1 League certainly isn’t as financially stagnant as many of a similar quality. In an attempt to promote sustainability, they’ve changed tactics somewhat in recent years, presumably after seeing the implications the massive contracts of past legends such as Iniesta, Torres, and David Villa had on their bank accounts. Promoting sustainability and reinvesting more funding into their domestic talent is never a bad way to go and this strategy will likely see the Meiji Yasuda J1 League continue to rise for many years to come. Interested in checking out a team? The top club in the division at the moment are probably Yokohama F. Marinos who have recently won the title for the fourth time in their history. Conversely, the most successful Japanese club is Kashima Antlers who have somewhat fallen off in recent years but are still synonymous with the Japanese game. Looking for a wealthy club in the image of Manchester United? Look no further than the Urawa Red Diamonds.

Trendyol Süper Lig (Turkey)

Every couple of months, a video of a Turkish league match does the rounds on social media. Stands alight with flares dyeing the sky a crimson red, banners covered in block lettering reading “Welcome to Hell”, and tifos depicting club legends of old. While the intensity of their fanbase is notorious for reasons both positive and less so, you can’t help but respect the Turkish for their love of the game. A lot of people have come to know the Turkish league as a semi-retirement home for some of football’s greats such as Mesut Ozil, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, and Roberto Carlos, but they are in fact currently ranked just outside of the top ten best footballing leagues worldwide. If you’re looking for an exceptional division with some of the best fans in the sport, the Turkish league is definitely worth a watch.

Football is a religion in Turkey. Fully aware of this, the government have invested large sums of cash into the redevelopment of stadiums across the country. Unfortunately, many of these projects ran ridiculously overbudget leading many investors into huge debt; it’s not uncommon to try and gamble massive short-term expenditures on potential future growth (look no further than Tottenham’s billion-pound stadium), but unlike the Premier League, the Trendyol Süper Lig has struggled to recoup the funds that would lead some of their top clubs back into profitability. To make matters worse, Turkey has recently struggled with an economic crisis that has tanked the international value of their lira currency making it far more challenging for their clubs to compete for global talent. In financial free-fall for the last decade, the Süper Lig top four (Trabzonspor, Galatasaray, Besiktas, and Fenerbahçe) were looking at debts of over a billion US dollars come 2021.

While the league isn’t exactly in the best state at the moment, there are still plenty of exceptionally talented footballers that call Turkey their home. Physicality reigns supreme in the Trendyol Süper Lig and many players especially in the striking and centre back positions tend to be incredible athletes, while those on the wings and in the midfield are trusted to serve as the creative outlets. Unlike some of the larger European leagues that have made a switch away from twin striker formations, these are still very much in fashion across Turkish clubs with many favouring the ever-effective 4-4-2. This can sometimes lead to an old-fashioned game of hoof-ball but can also make for some exceptional defensive to attacking match-ups. Want to check out the league for yourself? If you’re looking to watch the biggest and most successful club in Tukey, Galatasaray should be your destination. For their main competition and another two of the top four, cross Istanbul for Besiktas and Fenerbahçe.

Jupiler Pro League (Belgium)

Europe is packed with elite football, which can lead to some very decent divisions getting next to no publicity. The Belgian Jupiler Pro League is a prime example, with the country’s location between the footballing giants of Germany, France, and the Netherlands guaranteeing that the attention of the average footballing fan is often directed toward their neighbours. While it may not quite get the respect it deserves, the Belgian footballing scene is amongst the oldest in the world with the first league being held in 1895 with clubs such as Royal Antwerp and Club Brugge being founded in 1880 and 1891 respectively. This predates Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. With an assortment of clubs boasting a rich pedigree and a strong emphasis on the development of talented youth, the Jupiler Pro League certainly does football right.

Possibly my favourite thing about the Belgian footballing pyramid is the inclusion of under-23 teams in some of the lower divisions. There have been as many as four under-23 sides playing in the Challenger Pro League (Second Division) over the last few years, something that actively encourages top sides to invest in their youth systems while giving talented youngsters and coaches an opportunity to gain experience in a competitive environment. When they are deemed good enough to play for the main club, they are recalled and given an opportunity to stake their claim for a first team spot. It may have only been implemented relatively recently, but this system is proving to be incredibly effective at developing youth and we’ve already seen several players break into European competition squads having started their career at an under-23s side. A facet of the Jupiler Pro League that’s a bit less popular with fans is the playoff structure implemented in the 2009-10 season. Contrary to the regular format found in most European leagues, the Jupiler Pro League has the clubs placed in the top six at the end of the season enter a mini league where they play each other twice to give participating teams a fresh point total. Each starts with points equivalent to their season total divided by two rounded to the nearest integer; this means that coming first in the Jupiler Pro League doesn’t actually mean guarantee the championship, but rather gives an advantage in the post-season playoff.  Carrying on the trend of the aptly nicknamed ‘most convoluted league in football’, the battle for relegation has teams from 13th to 16th partake in a playoff with two dropping down to the Challenger Pro League while the winner then plays the third placed team in the second division.

The somewhat complex league structure actually helps to level the playing field between clubs and tends to be pretty effective at breaking one-club dominance – even though Club Brugge have very much made the title their own in recent years. However, keeping the Jupiler Pro League on lock has proven to be a major challenge for even some of the most iconic teams of the past and no doubt the most successful Belgian team in history R.S.C. Anderlecht, as well as last years’ winner Royal Antwerp F.C. will be targeting league glory in the seasons to come.

WheresTheMatch have comprehensive TV listings for football leagues all over the world. Keep up to date with our live football on tv schedule for all of the popular (and lesser-known) leagues taking place going into the future.