Ascending the pyramid: Meet the fresh faces of the European “Big Five” leagues


Each new football season brings a tantalising air of unpredictability, igniting the hopes and dreams of fans worldwide. At the epicentre of this sporting passion lies the heart-pounding action of the European "Big Five" leagues – the English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, and French Ligue 1. As these illustrious leagues gear up for their new, 2023/24 campaigns, anticipation is building, not only among established powerhouses but also among recently promoted clubs. Stepping onto the grand stage, these rising outfits and their fans are fuelled by an unwavering belief in their ability to challenge the best of the best and etch their names in the annals of football history.

In the article that follows, we delve into the captivating stories of these newly promoted clubs – from the remarkable tales of their promotions to an analysis of their squad market valuations, summer transfer activities, as well as their social media following.

A total of 13 clubs were promoted to the “Big Five” leagues, one fewer compared to a year ago. The promotion systems in the Premier League, LaLiga, and Serie A have remained consistent, ensuring a rotation of three clubs each season, but competition rules in the Bundesliga and rule changes in Ligue 1 have brought some variability to the number of promoted clubs this season. For the fourth straight year, only two clubs were promoted to the Bundesliga, as the incumbent relegation candidate overcame a potential upstart in the relegation playoffs. Bigger changes were present in France, where the first division’s size was reduced from 20 to 18 following an overwhelming vote in favour of the new system by the French professional football governing body. Consequently, only two clubs were granted promotion, while four clubs had to gracefully pave the way for their ascending counterparts.

In the English Premier League, Burnley FC return to the topflight with a storied footballing history, having been one of the 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888. Led by Vincent Kompany, Burnley FC, along with Sheffield United FC, established themselves as the best teams in the Championship early on in the season and finished their campaigns with relative ease in the automatic promotion spots. On the other hand, Luton Town FC have had to fight through the promotion playoffs, winning the final on penalties. Luton’s promotion became a viral sensation on social media, as their stadium will be the smallest ever to host a Premier League match, with a maximum capacity of 10,356. This stadium is also the smallest out of all 13 promoted clubs in the “Big Five”. One member of their squad, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, also made history by becoming the first player to play for the same club from the National League (fifth tier) to the Premier League.

In Spain, 2019/20 Europa League quarterfinalists Granada CF have made a strong statement as they return to LaLiga on the back of an impressive season by star attacker Myrto Uzuni, who scored 23 of the club’s 55 goals. Elsewhere, UD Las Palmas also return to the first tier of Spanish football, having put behind them last year’s playoffs loss against local Canary Islands rivals, CD Tenerife. Their captain, Jonathan Viera, is now the only player in the club’s history to record two promotions with Las Palmas. Lastly, Deportivo Alavés secured promotion in dramatic fashion with a 129th minute penalty in the playoffs final. Manager Luis Garcia became only the third manager to secure LaLiga promotions with three different clubs this century.

Surprisingly, the headlines for Italian promoted clubs were stolen by managers instead of players. Frosinone Calcio and Genoa CFC – the oldest club in Italy – were led by two former players. Both part of the 2006 Italian World Champion squad, Fabio Grosso topped Serie B with Frosinone for the first time in club history, while Alberto Gilardino turned his club’s fortunes around after being appointed mid-season. Following a trend of dramatic promotion playoffs, Cagliari Calcio, guided by former Premier League-winning manager Claudio Ranieri on the sidelines, returned to Serie A through a stoppage-time goal in the playoffs final.

Le Havre AC’s triumph as champions of Ligue 2 for the sixth time positions them as formidable newcomers to Ligue 1 after 22 years away from the latter. Meanwhile, FC Metz enter Ligue 1 with the lethal scoring abilities of star striker Georges Mikautadze, who finished as the top scorer in the French second division. The club likely hope that their attacking prowess will translate well to the first division.

Finally, a town of just 50,000 will host Bundesliga football as 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 achieved a historic maiden promotion to the German topflight. Led by local manager Frank Schmidt, who has been with the club since 2007, their journey from the fifth tier to the Bundesliga showcases their determination to compete at the highest level. Just like Luton Town FC, Heidenheim also have the smallest venue in their league with a capacity of only 15,000. SV Darmstadt 98 returned to the Bundesliga as well, after narrowly missing out on moving up a year ago. They will look to rekindle their fierce local rivalry with Eintracht Frankfurt, the two cities being only 30km apart.

Squad market values of the promoted clubs entail crucial insights into their financial strength and the perceived talent of their players.

Notably, promoted clubs in England stand out from the pack, showcasing the strength of the English second division compared to all other lower divisions in Europe. Burnley FC lead the way with a squad value of EUR 169.2 million with Sheffield United FC following, boasting a squad value of EUR 102.9 million. These values would rank Burnley ninth and Sheffield United 14th on average in the other four leagues, with both expected to avoid relegation based on their pre-season squad values. This discrepancy can be attributed to their recent participation in the highly lucrative English Premier League, which allowed them to build a more powerful squad in the years preceding. Furthermore, relegated squads in England receive significant parachute payments, thus they were able to further extend their budgets, compared to other European clubs, in pursuit of promotion.

Across other European leagues, a similar trend of more recently relegated clubs having more valuable squads emerges, albeit to a lesser extent. In Italy and France, recent Serie A participants Genoa CFC and Cagliari Calcio exhibit higher squad values compared to Frosinone Calcio, while FC Metz’s squad market value surpasses that of Le Havre AC, who last played in Ligue 1 in 2008/09. However, in Germany, 1. FC Heidenheim 1846’s squad market value is close to SV Darmstadt 98’s, despite only enjoying their first Bundesliga season in club history.

It is also evident that Luton Town FC, Frosinone Calcio, and, to some extent, Deportivo Alavés, appear to be significant underdogs heading into the season. Compared to their domestic promoted peers, their squad values are lagging behind. Nevertheless, football is often full of surprises, and these underdogs may possess the tenacity and determination to exceed expectations and make a mark in their respective leagues.

When it comes to transfer investment (as at 30 July 2023), Burnley FC are flying in the stratosphere, leading the pack in both absolute and net transfer expenditure, having spent EUR 65.7 million on incoming transfers while only recording player sales of EUR 2.3 million. Surprisingly, Genoa CFC break the Premier League contingent at the top, investing at similar levels to Luton Town FC and Sheffield United FC. However, considering recent trends, it seems likely that the English clubs will go on a spending spree before the transfer window closes.

On the other hand, there are four net seller clubs whose transfer income so far surpasses their expenditure. Cagliari Calcio, Frosinone Calcio, and FC Metz, in particular, have received significantly more transfer income than what they have spent when considering the overall volume of their transfer business. Though SV Darmstadt 98 barely fall into this category, they showcase a balanced financial approach registering a net transfer expenditure of only EUR 0.2m. It will be interesting to observe the late transfer activity of these clubs, especially after they play their first few games in their respective leagues.

Player trading activities vividly reflect the varying intentions and budgets of the clubs, despite their being in the same division. Based on their transfer spending so far, Burnley FC and Genoa CFC in England and Italy, respectively, appear to have set lofty goals compared to their promoted counterparts. Burnley have already purchased forward Zeki Amdouni, goalkeeper James Trafford, and defender Jordan Beyer for greater than EUR 15m fees, while Genoa acquired Italian national team striker Mateo Retegui for a reported fee of EUR 12m. Meanwhile, the spending distribution appears to be more balanced in France, Germany, and Spain.

Data on social media followership among the promoted football clubs offers intriguing insights into their online fan engagement and popularity.

Notably, two Premier League clubs, Burnley FC and Sheffield United FC, dominate the ranking, reflecting their strong online presence and reinforcing the English first division’s global appeal. Even Luton Town FC, a club that haven’t been to the topflight this decade, have amassed a total followership of 1 million – more than any of the four promoted clubs in France and Germany. At the tail end of the ranking are 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 and Le Havre AC, clubs who have enjoyed the longest drought of first division football out of the 13 clubs in consideration, with the exception of Luton Town FC, mentioned previously.

Social media data can also serve as an indicator of the five leagues’ relative popularity across the world. Following the Premier League, it appears that the average LaLiga club garners the most attention, with all three promoted clubs logging above 2 million followers. Serie A outfits are closely trailing, with the average followership of its promoted clubs being slightly above 1 million. Finally, purely from this data sample, it appears that the demand for Ligue 1 and Bundesliga are the lowest worldwide.

Starting 11 August, we can get a peek at these clubs in action as the Premier League, LaLiga, and Ligue 1 return, with the Bundesliga and Serie A following a week later. Burnley FC perhaps face the toughest initial hurdle, as they face off against the treble-winning Manchester City FC side. However, the season is long, the possibilities are endless, and these clubs are sure to dish up great entertainment to fans across the globe.