Celebrity Status – The role of the Ligue 1 President

Aulas El-k crop

Guest writer Stefan Robert takes a look at the unusual status that the Ligue 1 club president holds in the public sphere.

 

Often when I talk about French Football to other UK-based French Football fans the discussion moves on to the bizarre and yet awkwardly entertaining role that club presidents sometimes play in the public eye. The Ligue 1 club president is highly visible and possesses a status that’s quite unfamiliar across the channel. It’s particularly noticeable when you compare this to the English Premiership.

In England, club chairmen are relatively quiet and are very seldom involved in making any public declarations or speaking to the press (Karren Brady and Tony Xia being notable exceptions). However, its managers are often caught up in squabbles, regularly criticizing each other and therefore grab much of the tabloid headlines. Think Jose Mourinho and his public feuding with Antonio Conte this season or comments exchanged between Mourinho and Guardiola regarding transfer funds, or Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson’s long and sometimes embarrassing rivalry. The best-known public feud is arguably when Ferguson managed to rile up Newcastle coach Kevin Keegan into a cringe-worthy public meltdown in a post-match BBC interview.

Yet, we don’t see Ligue 1 coaches in the press much let alone bickering in the same way that say Mourinho or Conte are doing in the Premier League. Why is that? Maybe the coaches aren’t as interesting. Maybe nobody is that interested in reading about what Unai Emery or Rudi Garcia has to say. It is true that there have been some big names coaching in Ligue 1 – the season started with Marcelo Bielsa (undoubtedly one of the biggest characters in the game) at Lille and Claudio Ranieri at Nantes. However, aside from those two names, the rest don’t really spark much excitement. Ligue 1 isn’t full of coaches with personality – ex Toulouse coach Pascal Dupraz is a strong character and likes to speak his mind.

The coaches in Ligue 1 also don’t seem to criticize each other and often seem to possess a degree of respect for one another – see Bielsa and Ranieri’s exchange when Lille met Nantes early in the season. Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, both former teammates for Les Bleus, often exchanged admiration and respect for one another during their teams’ (Bordeaux and Marseille) head-to-head race for the title in 2009. This is however not much more than a theory. Perhaps the real reason for the coaches’ lack of headline grabbing is the differing roles between coach and manager, in France than in the UK. Coaches are coaches and their role maybe doesn’t extend much beyond the day-to-day running of the team.

On the contrary to its current group of coaches with arguably dreary personalities, Ligue 1 has had a plethora of strong characters hold the role of club president. The presidents not only possess huge personalities, but they also tend to be regular orators regarding football matters that would normally be addressed by coaches. Lyon’s Jean-Michel Aulas is probably leading the pack if we are talking about being visible, vocal and occasionally ruffling a few feathers.  Those who love him describe him as intelligent media-savvy communicator; those who hate him consider him arrogant – a rational assessment if you consider some of his comments such as that rivals St Etienne can “play Champions League on PlayStation”.

In terms of presidents publicly voicing their views on football issues, it’s not just Aulas. Waldemir Kita of Nantes can be rather outspoken at times and voices his opinions regularly – see his recent lengthy comments regarding referee Tony Chapron’s kick and sending off of Nantes defender Diego Carlos. Monaco VP Vadim Vasilyev also has the occasional outburst at the LFP and any unfair treatment received by his club. Even PSG’s more measured Nasser Al-Khelaifi has recently criticized the refereeing decisions his club receives.

The presidents also possess personalities widely recognized by the public. Toulouse’s Olivier Sadran is known for been a tough negotiator, garnering a reputation for being stubborn when it comes to the transfer value of his players.  Former Marseille chief Vincent Labrune was viewed as a PR disaster and never far from the headlines. Bernard Tapie was one of the most recognized personalities in his time and probably the biggest household name outside of France, partly because of his infamous involvement in a match fixing scandal that led to Marseille being relegated from Ligue 1, but also because of the fact he had a celebrity status like a Hollywood movie star. But, probably the strongest example of a ‘personality president’ is the late Laurent Nicollin of Montpellier. ‘Loulou’ had a gift for uttering brash, hilarious and sometimes absurd comments or analysis. He was ever-present in the press and was a wet dream for journalists due to his candid and uncensored remarks.

Unlike the more elusive Premiership chairman, what we do see often in Ligue 1 are club presidents regularly in the papers. Naturally, the presidents are often seen as the face of the club – unsurprising given that they are at the top of the club hierarchy. Public bashing of rival clubs (at least with Aulas) and complaining about favoritism and discrimination the league are not uncommon. The occurrence of tweeting wars and trolling is not unheard of either. The rivalries between presidents are often similar to that between Premiership managers. Again, Jean Michel-Aulas has mastered the art here.

Most recently, he’s been involved in a tweet war with Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud after he raised concerns about the number of penalties awarded to Lyon this season and the very few awarded to Marseille (Marseille subsequently received penalties in the following two matches!). In fact, Aulas was often locking horns with Eyraud’s predecessor Vincent Labrune and before that Pape Diouf. The point is the presidents are the centre of attention when it comes to media coverage, and thus they have become synonymous with the image of the club. They can become the target of rival clubs and rival fans (and their own when things aren’t going so well). Have a look at club supporter forums or speak with supporters at the game and it becomes apparent that the presidents are the butt of the jokes – Marseille fans often refer to Lyon’s Jean Michel Aulas as Palpatine – a reference to his physical similarities to Star Wars villain Senator Palpatine AKA Emperor Darth Sidius!

So, what is it that drives the Ligue 1 club president to take the limelight? It is perhaps most likely a consequence of the way Ligue 1 clubs are structured. Coaches are coaches and concentrate on football matters.  They are not operating the role of ‘general manager’ like the old-style British football manager à la Alex Ferguson. In France, the presidents are the voice of the club. They’re savvy media operators and are needed to provide the much-needed influence on the public, the media and league’s governance. Ligue 1 doesn’t get the attention that other leagues like in England or Spain do, and so club presidents probably need to do a lot more to get their slice of the pie. Whether you find the behaviour of Ligue 1 club presidents ego-driven or you find their squabbling embarrassing, the fact is that this is the status quo in France. You might as well enjoy the entertainment.

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