Football coverage has changed dramatically in recent years. Back in the day, Saturday night's Match of the Day was pretty much the only opportunity British fans had to watch football on TV, while any conversations, debates and arguments had between fans would take place face-to-face, at work, at home, or at the pub. But nowadays, football is available to watch non-stop, with numerous streaming services and terrestrial channels showing sport every day, while Twitter and other social media platforms provide a space for constant discussions and debates. These arguments can range from light-hearted banter to downright toxic abuse, and when things veer into the latter, it becomes a seriously ugly side of the sport, and one that needs to be stamped out.
However, today we're going to be focusing on one of the less offensive social media terms that has popped up in relation to football in recent years. If you're someone who regularly browses Twitter or Instagram, it's likely that you've come across people discussing the idea of a "Farmers League" — and you may have wondered to yourself, what exactly does that mean?
In this article, we'll be explaining this slightly confusing phrase, exploring what it means, where it came from, and the place this term has within the world of international soccer. And later on, we'll also dive into the question of which leagues are most likely to be handed this title...
At its core, the term "Farmer's League" is an insult, a derogatory term used by certain football fans to describe a football league that they deem to be lacking competitiveness or deep quality. The idea behind the insult is that the league in question is dominated by one extremely elite club, or perhaps a very small handful of elite clubs, while the rest of the division is comprised of much smaller, poorer-quality sides.
Given the increasing gulf in financial means between the English Premier League and some of the other top domestic competitions across Europe and the rest of the world, it's hardly surprising that this term has grown in popularity, as people compare and contrast the level of competition on show in different top leagues.
That being said, the phrase "farmer's league" can be offensive, and it can produce some pretty strong reactions from fans, pundits, and even players and coaches (more on this later...) Which begs the question: where did this term come from, and how has it gained such prominence?
The use of the word "farmer" in this context basically refers to the notion that the average player in the targeted league is of the quality of a local farmer rather than a highly-paid, elite-level professional footballer. Similarly, you might hear people describing a league as a "Pub League", "Sunday League", or a "Village League" - all these insults are basically intended in the same way.
Like many other examples of derision and mockery that take place between football fans these days, this concept was developed online by fans who spend a lot of time on social media. If you had to pin down one place that was the root of the term "farmers league", your best bet would be Twitter. However, it's expanded beyond these boundaries and is now widely understood as a part of global football vocabulary.
At its core, this phrase often comes down to snobbishness, usually from English Premier League fans that view the league they follow as the most competitive league in world football, better than all other European competitions, from the French league to the Europa League. It's long been said that while some games in leagues like Serie A or La Liga are essentially no contest, every single match in the Premier League is a battle, and it's hard to argue with that statement.
That being said, with the idea of a "farmers league", some fans are taking things to the next level, and using it as a form of serious disrespect. So who exactly is this phrase generally directed towards?
In Europe, it's widely understood that the "top five leagues" consist of the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1. However, out of those, there's one division in particular that is often accused of being a boring one-horse race, with most teams miles off the pace when it comes to challenging at the top end of the league. That is Ligue 1, the highest tier of French football.
The list of trophy winners in recent years supports this argument — Parisian giants PSG have won eight of the last ten Ligue 1 titles, developing a bit of a chokehold over the competition and consistently racking up a large points gap on the teams below. Interestingly, while PSG haven't always reigned supreme, Ligue 1 does seem to have a tendency to usually include one single dominant club, with Lyon winning seven consecutive championships in the early 2000s and Marseille dominating in the 1980s with five straight titles.
Despite the fact that a large amount of money has been pumped into Ligue 1 in the last decade - both by uber-rich owners such as PSG's Qatari funders, and by the sale of top talents by clubs like AS Monaco or Lyon to other European clubs - France's top tier is still often accused by online fans of being a "farmers league". And it's not the only member of the top five European leagues to have acquired this status amongst some fans; The Bundesliga, in which Bayern Munich have totally dominated other German teams in recent years, also receives some derision from outsiders, while Juventus' nine-year winning streak in Serie A caused some to question the level of competition in Italy's top league.
And yes, there's often a tongue-in-cheek attitude in these insults, which are usually just designed to get a rise out of certain European football fans rather than genuinely question the integrity and professional quality of the league. But that doesn't stop certain people becoming offended by these digs at the skill level of their competition.
As we've explained, while the exact roots of this bit of online slang aren't totally clear, it's most often Ligue 1 that people are referring to when they use the phrase "Farmers League". But why is it that the French top flight has this reputation?
Ultimately, it comes down to the huge finances that became available to Paris Saint Germain when they were taken over by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, and the level of player they've been able to attract since. The signing of the likes of Monaco's Kylian Mbappé, Barcelona's Neymar, and recently, Argentina and Barca legend Lionel Messi, is a testament to the club's substantial budget, and it's understandable that other clubs in Ligue 1 just don't seem able to compete.
Despite the fact that an incredibly well-run, well-coached Monaco side featuring Mbappé, Radamel Falcao, Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lamar, and more were able to triumph in 2016-17, and an excellent Lille team were able to shock fans and also interrupt PSG's dominance in 2020-21, it's otherwise been rare for any serious title challenge to be made. Therefore, the idea of the "Farmer's League" has stuck, as PSG continue to blow away opponents and reinforce their superiority over the teams around them.
The fact that Ligue 1 has often operated as a "feeder league" strengthens the argument. Because of the fact that other than PSG, very few French teams have the level of finances of a Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, or Manchester United, clubs such as Monaco, Lyon, or Marseille have often relied on their ability to produce and develop players before selling them for a profit to clubs in the Premier League. Players such as Hugo Lloris (Lyon to Tottenham Hotspur), N'golo Kante (Caen to Leicester), and Bernardo Silva (Monaco to Man City) are prime examples of this phenomenon. In fact, fans of Ligue 1 can surely point to this as a defence — if the division's players amount to the same skill level as farmers, why do they keep getting signed by clubs in the Premier League, or by other elite European sides like Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund?
The "farmers league" insult is one that's often used light-heartedly, but it can still offend certain people — in fact, France superstar Kylian Mbappé once lashed out against those who use the term, tweeting it alongside a clown emoji after two French clubs (PSG and Lyon) managed to reach the Champions League semi-finals in 2020. The fact that he was so impacted by people's mocking of his league might lead us to wonder: what does the future hold for Ligue 1?
Ultimately, it looks as though the financial gap between the Premier League and the other top five leagues in Europe is only going to continue growing. Historic clubs like Barcelona and Juventus are struggling financially, with their owners still desperate to enact their breakaway European Super League in order to secure consistent funds regardless of league position. So, it's difficult to see the level of competition in Ligue 1 or other divisions dominated by the same league winners changing any time soon. That being said, leagues like the Bundesliga have seen a slight shake-up in the last few months; while Bayern are still the frontrunner for the 2022-23 title, clubs like Union Berlin have surprised fans by competing at the top of the table all season long. For a deep dive into how exactly that has been made possible, check out our guide to The Rise of Union Berlin.
"Farmer's league" is just one of many potentially confusing phrases thrown about in footballing circles. Our blog is dedicated to unpacking these terms — for a more tactically focused explainer, why not check out our article 'What is a low block in soccer?'