There May be Trouble Ahead for Ligue 1 and French Football
A brief glance at the Ligue 1 table shows a distinct unbalance. At the top, unsurprisingly – we have Paris Saint-Germain on 48 points, dropping just six in the 2015-16 campaign thus far. Well below, we have the other 19 teams. With the exception of winless Troyes, rooted to the bottom, only 15 points separate the other 18 teams sandwiched in the middle.
You could be forgiven for thinking France’s championship resembles something like Scotland’s Premier League. PSG are becoming more like a Celtic, and not quite like a Bayern Munich. A team that races to the title at a canter, leaving the others to fend for the other honours. A distinct opposite from the Bundesliga, where dominant Bayern rule the roost, but there are also three or four dominant sides who may not win the title, but put in a strong showing domestically, and in Europe.
What has happened in the last 12 months in France? Hubert Fournier’s Lyon were excelling superbly. Marseille were overhauled by El Loco Marcelo Bielsa and sitting pretty at the top. Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco were getting into gear, and competing against them were Christophe Galtier’s intimidating Saint-Etienne and Willy Sagnol’s surprisingly exciting Bordeaux side. It made for a great start to the campaign, and a title race that looked for months that it would finally ignite into something compelling.
While the championship was decided eventually in PSG’s favour, there seemed to be a great platform to build on. This campaign however, has been a washout since the beginning with Paris Saint-Germain sweeping past nearly everyone. And the score lines recorded have been similarly eyebrow raising.
The question you’d have to ask – is Ligue 1 losing its shine?
I’m not entirely sure what’s brought on this feeling. Perhaps it’s Marseille’s 1-1 draw against minnows Gazelec Ajaccio, coupled with PSG’s demolition job against last year’s runner-up Lyon (5-1) on Sunday.
There is now so little quality outside of Paris Saint-Germain, that we now have a league where literally anyone can beat another team. The likes of Marseille, Lyon, Monaco have been stripped of their best players year-in, year-out. They have now been amalgamated into the middle rank alongside the likes of Rennes, Nice who aren’t far off in quality.
Meanwhile, financial constraints (lack of sustained income, lack of European football, tax etc) have meant that these aforementioned top teams have been unable to break away from the middle ground. Not only does it hurt these teams domestically, but in Europe, Ligue 1 cannot compete.
The problems are laid bare in European competition. Lyon & Monaco were unable to negotiate relatively simple groups in the Champions & Europa League groups. When it comes to Europe – the French league, normally regarded as one of the top five on the continent behind England, Spain, Germany & Italy, are routinely bested by representatives from Portugal & Russia.
And this is a salient point. For this season, Ligue 1 is in serious danger of losing a spot in the Champions League. Having lost its fifth place in the UEFA coefficients (that determines the strongest leagues in European competition), it ceded a place in the play-off round to a representative from Portugal – in other words, meaning that Ligue 1’s third placed team needed to pass through two rounds before qualifying for the lucrative group stage.
Should France slip to seventh (and there is a miniscule 0.36 gap in the coefficient between fifth & Russia in seventh) it would lose a whole spot in the Champions League. Only two teams would are permitted to qualify, and only the champion is guaranteed a spot in the group stages. The runner-up would need to negotiate two rounds – where Lyon (2013), Lille (2014) and Monaco (2015).
Such a scenario would represent a death knell for Ligue 1. And the way PSG are going domestically, we could potentially have a scenario in 2017 where 19 teams are fighting for a place in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, where they would need to beat the likes of Arsenal, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen or Roma to qualify. Not sure about you, but that would be a long shot.
The problems don’t just stop there either. The 2015 instalment of The Great Exodus of French football saw many of the league’s top talents up sticks for England, and not for the likes of the top 4 either. Dimitri Payet was charmed by West Ham, Andre Ayew by Swansea. Heck, even the exciting Max-Alain Gradel saw Bournemouth as a preferable alternative to Saint-Etienne.
The perceived giants of Marseille & Lyon cannot compete financially with lesser sides from across the Channel. If it’s bad now, it will be next season when the mammoth TV deal kicks in from June in England. Indeed, according to data from the CIES Football Observatory & Transfermarkt – the average spend per player and the total value of the squad at these clubs is comparable to Crystal Palace or Sunderland in the Premier League.
Domestically, there’s a big problem on the balance of quality. Paris Saint-Germain’s season budget (€490m) is more than four times that of any other side. It’s also comparable to the combined total of their nearest rivals. So, we can’t exactly be surprised by their superiority.
But what’s happening below cannot be ignored. Something must be done. And a good proportion of the blame lies at the clubs in question, who fail to challenge PSG’s growing hegemon.
Financial mismanagement (Marseille), constraints (Lyon) and sheer owner apathy (Monaco) have made for a stale season. The re-ordering of priorities have made Ligue 1 unberable to watch.
These clubs have now made themselves profit generators. In the words of OM president Vincent Labrune – he spoke in August about being a B team for the super clubs, such was their diminished importance in European football. This is Marseille – stadium 67,000, the biggest club in France and until recently, the 15th richest club in the world – speaking in a resigned tone.
Paris Saint-Germain have also voiced their own concerns at the state of the domestic game. After three straight title wins, and now beating their nearest rivals by rugby scores, it really doesn’t make for a healthy & strong competition.
It doesn’t help in their quest for Champions League success either. If their opponents are unable to provide much of a test, it doesn’t help their players when facing the likes of Barcelona or Chelsea in the latter stages of the Champions League.
A Solution? Unlikely to find an easy one.
So many problems and dangers, but what about a solution? What can the LFP do to regulate the competition a little to ensure its top sides are firing on all cylinders domestically & in Europe, and ensure a top product, like its relatives in England, Spain, Germany & Italy.
Ligue 1 clubs have lost considerable shine and standing. Its top four (outside PSG) is considerably weaker than its European counterparts.
You could argue that nothing can be done, and that it’s simply a sign of the times. That Angers & Caen, (promoted this year & last) have spent most of the season so far in the Champions League places, is more indicative of their strength, and not on the woes of the bigger clubs, and that they deserve it equally.
Absolutely, but Ligue 1 cannot afford this scenario. Montpellier & Lille’s surprising exploits a couple of years ago saw them fail miserably. Indeed, Marseille also in a group containing some of Europe’s heavyweights, saw them crash and burn in 2013.
France’s own increased TV rights kick in from 2016, where beIN Sport & Canal+ will shell out roughly €750m per season – higher than the €607m from the current cycle, and on a par with Spain’s La Liga, and higher than the Bundesliga.
The top clubs must come together and forego its obsession with balance sheets for the good of the game. It needs to reassign priority to the strength of the squad, and not the strength of its profit.
Ligue 1 can only benefit from a strong Marseille, a strong Lyon & a strong Monaco. It can benefit too from the likes of Nice, Rennes & Bordeaux challenging the top sides for European competition.
The LFP & stakeholders must come up with a solution, or watch its star championship fall away into oblivion. It needs to move away from the pauper mindset as echoed by Vincent Labrune. It needs a Lyon who are financially viable and able to attract top stars. It needs a Monaco who are able to repeat their exploits from 2014-15.
If it is unable to, then the French league will descend into mediocrity and oblivion in the coming years.