Zlatan Show Can't Save French Football

Ligue Un may be home to one of the most exciting players in the game, but French football is on its knees. Players are leaving, prices are rising and fans are staying away...

Last Updated: 30/01/13 at 13:08 Post Comment

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Although France's Ligue Un has traditionally been viewed amongst Europe's elite, it may surprise you to learn that the country's clubs have almost continuously under-achieved, demonstrated by a lovely statistic: In the 137 tournaments of the European, UEFA and Cup Winners' Cups (in all their various guises), only two have been won by French clubs, Marseille's rather 'shady' European Cup in 1993 and Paris St Germain's 1-0 Cup Winners' Cup victory over Rapid Vienna in 1996. Italy 28, Spain 27, England 26 and France 2. That blows my mind.

Instead, French football's reputation has been upheld in two ways, the first of which being the performance of two golden generations on the international stage. Michel Platini led a team of the 1980s that came fourth and third at consecutive World Cups in 1982 and 1986, sandwiching a glorious European Championships on home soil in 1984. The hosting of the tournament also paid dividends during the country's most successful era with their sole World Cup victory in 1998, followed up with Euro success two years later.

Secondly, France has consistently been able to export players of genuine international class: Platini, Jean-Pierre Papin, Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry to name a few (of many). It was this ability for French clubs (and the Clairefontaine academy) to produce amongst the best players in the world that gave Ligue Un an evident magnetism for interest.

Now, unfortunately, such status seems to be slipping away. France may still be Europe's fifth-ranked league but they are falling further behind the 'big four', and are being caught quickly by Ukraine's Premier League. For the first time in four seasons, only one French club will compete in the knockout stages of the Champions League. In the group stages, Lille won just one game (against BATE Borisov), losing the other five, whilst Montpellier failed to register a single victory. PSG are France's sole representative, and their presence has been falsely engineered against a concern of future FFP meltdown.

Ligue Un's attendances have fallen year on year for the last seven seasons. An average of 18,745 is just over half of the Premier League's figure but the real worry is that, on average, grounds are only 68% full. Four years ago it was 76%. During last season, only three French clubs averaged gates of over 25,000. By way of comparison, 17 English clubs did. In an effort to reduce hooliganism in the country banning orders have been given against thousands of fans, and whilst this has thankfully curbed much of the violence, the atmosphere created by Ultra groups (many of which were non-aggressive) has been diluted.

Supporters' interest has also been lowered by the inept performances of Les Bleus, so often the beacon for footballing hope in France. A shambolic five-year period which saw the side play eight games in international tournaments without victory was ended at Euro 2012, but finishing on four points (and behind England) in an easier group did little to promote national pride. Being drawn in a group with Spain for World Cup 2014 qualifying may seem unlucky, but France have dropped to 17th in FIFA's (heavily criticised) world rankings.

National interest is necessary for revenue generation, and French clubs have always had it tough when it comes to the financing of the game. In England we see our football clubs as social institutions, therefore tending to receive facilitated finance from fans. French clubs are not viewed in this way, and therefore suffer from a lack of revenue from television and merchandising. Whilst in 2011 Premier League clubs reported an average revenue of €134million, in France this figure was €54million. The recent Deloitte Money League for European football listed six English, four Italian, three German and two Spanish clubs in its top 15, but no French clubs.

Football clubs in France are also at the financial behest of the Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion (National Directorate of Management Control), which administers the finances for the top five divisions. The DNCG prevents the borrowing of money outside of proportion with revenue, and enforces stringent image rights laws, all of which hold back clubs from expansion. In addition, an 'entertainment tax' rate in the country forces clubs to pay extortionate wages to provide players with sufficient take-home pay. The latest proposals to enforce a 75% tax rate on the highest earners in the country (effectively all top footballers) have been rejected by parliament, but a similar (if slightly diluted) implementation will occur, a huge push factor for the players.

In such a climate, clubs simply cannot afford the wages on offer in other leagues, or compete financially with the revenues enjoyed elsewhere. This has seen an almost unprecedented migration of players from Ligue Un to differing climes. In the last eight months alone, players that have left include: Eden Hazard, Hugo Lloris, Aly Cissokho, Kim Kallstrom, Cris, Cesar Azpilicueta, Alou Diarra, Stephane Mbia, Olivier Giroud, Nene, Samba Diakate, Modibo Maiga, Matthieu Debuchy, Moussa Sissoko, Mabou Yanga-Mbiwa, Massadio Haidara, Yoan Gouffran, Loic Remy and Michel Bastos. Of the 14 players used in France's last competitive international against Spain, nine players played abroad, with three more signed by PSG for high fees in the last year.

Moreover, these are not world class players, but simply any player that possesses enough talent to 'do a job', not exactly a glowing indictment. Montpellier won the league last season and have since lost Giroud and Yanga-Mbiwa. The season before, after Lille won the title, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Adil Rami all instantly left. It is the same picture throughout the division.

That effect has been crippling for the standards of the product offered to supporters. Without being patronising (I am being patronising), the top eight scorers include Argentinean journeyman Dario Cvitanich, Eden Ben Basat (an Israeli striker with three international caps) and Jeremie Aliadiere. I can sum up the decline in quality no better than this: no player has more assists in Ligue Un this season than Steed Malbranque.

In recent times the only saving grace for the league had been the retention of competition, with five different champions in as many seasons, but this has been effectively eliminated by the introduction of the Qatari billions to PSG. Whilst it has taken 18 months for the financial clout to make its mark , PSG have now dropped two points since the beginning of December, and look set to march on in 2013. One suspects that will start a period of sustained domestic dominance. Last summer PSG spent €107million on four players. The highest fee paid by any other club in the division was the £8.8million spent by Lille on Sochaux playmaker Marvin Martin. The rest of the clubs must simply scuttle in the shadows to conduct their transfer business, picking up free signings or hand-me-downs as money remains tight.

Television coverage fails to raise adequate revenues for sustained investment. The national team fails to inspire. An exodus of players as soon as they show the potential for even a degree of excellence. And a division that now has the potential for a sustained monopoly, financially warping the crucial element of competition. With ticket prices remaining high and disposable income reduced, it is difficult to see how fans' interest will be reignited. L'écriture est sur le mur.

Daniel Storey - find him on Twitter @danielstorey85

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