Lille - "Get on your bikes and ride"

Lille – “Get on your bikes and ride”

French football, in preparation for Euro 2016, has been very active in building impressive new stadia right across the nation. While these grounds all look to be transformational in their design and structure, the recent accident that took place at Bordeaux’s Nouveau Stade is a very unfortunate oversight that could have been far worse.

A safety barrier gave way at the stadium as Bordeaux were playing Nantes in front of more than 26,000 people. Only recently, requests had been made to the manufacturer to reconfigure them to better withstand fan celebrations. This wasn’t the first time, either, because when the stadium hosted its first game in May, a similar incident occurred.

Doubtless UEFA will be closely watching this situation, because there is the slight danger that it could trigger off an enquiry and subsequent neurosis over the safety of French football grounds allocated Euro 2016 games.

That aside, there is every chance that Euro 2016 and its new footballing cathedrals will provide the springboard to cement France as the number four nation among the top European leagues. It is poised to push Italy into fifth position after the 2014-15 season saw Ligue 1 attendances outperform Serie A. Of course, the competition with Italy is not really a revelation as a few years ago when Milan sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris St. Germain, there were suggestions that French football was on the brink of a sea change, while Italy was entering something of a decline.

Football think tank Football Benchmark says that the investment in new stadia in France will add 86,000 to the aggregate capacity of Ligue 1, bringing the average capacity to 32,000. Although this is still modest compared to say, England and Germany, the big bonus for France will be in a significant improvement in the quality of French grounds, enhancing the matchday experience and also opening up new revenue streams for the clubs.

Early signs are that the honeymoon period has just started for French clubs in their refurbished or rebuilt homes. For example, Nice have increased their crowds by 70% or more, while Lille are enjoying an astonishing 120%-plus upswing.

Aesthetically, some of the new grounds really catch the eye. The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux has been described as “the most beautiful football stadium ever built” with its 900 slim white columns. It was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who compared the stadium to a “classical temple”. This is the company that has laid plans for the spectacular new concept for Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and who also completed Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and China’s “Bird Nest”. They have form, you might say.

Bordeaux - "magnifique"

Bordeaux – “magnifique”

Nice’s Allianz Riviera Stadium is another spectacular new ground, replacing the club’s dilapidated old Stade du Ray. The aim is that this ground sits at the heart of a so-called “Eco Valley” in the Plaine du Bar and was tagged with the grand title of an “Operation of National Interest”. The stadium has been opened two years now and is also used by Toulon rugby club.

Like a number of stadium projects in France, Lille’s new ground is a public-private partnership. Lille have certainly benefitted from the creation of Grand Stade Lille Metropole, which is now called Stade Pierre-Mauroy. Half of the Grand Stade field sits on hydraulics and massive tracks can raise and slide it above the other half of the field in three hours. This reveals a second lower level floor with surroduning seats and enables the stadium to host basketball, tennis and concerts. It’s really quite unique.

A new stadium is being built in Lyon, the Stade des Lumieres, which is the most expensive of the Euro 2016 projects at some EUR 405m. The ground is the jewel in the crown of the OL Park, which will also include training facilities for Olympique Lyonnais and a health spa and hotel. The Stade des Lumieres will consume 8,000 tons of steel – roughly the same amount that was used to build Paris’ Eiffel Tower.

As well as the four new sites, the other Euro 2016 venues, with the exception of the Stade de France in St. Denis, have all received an overhaul.

Whether the new stadia acts as a catalyst to push French football onto a new level remains to be seen. There’s no denying that in the past few years, the financial impetus at Paris St. Germain and Monaco has pushed them into the limelight, but in order for Ligue 1 to rub shoulders with La Liga, the Bundesliga and the English Premier, there needs to be a better distribution of wealth to make the league for competitive.

French football’s attendance boom really started in the late 1990s and continued into the 21st century, when Les Bleus won the World Cup and European Championship. It could be said that France has been in something of a rebirth for its domestic football. If you consider the attendances down the years, in the mid-1950s, when Reims were competing with Europe’s best, the average Ligue 1 crowd was barely 11,000. When St. Etienne were in their pomp, the best supported club was PSG with an average of 22,000. Twenty years ago, the Ligue 1 average was 13,000. In 2014-15, it was 22,250. Only twice since WW2 has this been bettered.

Paris St. Germain have started the new season like an express train, winning all four games and keeping four clean sheets. They have their eye on another extensive Champions League campaign. Last season, no less than two French teams reached the quarter-final stage, further emphasising the growing maturity of Ligue 1.

Success for PSG and Monaco does not necessarily mean success for the French national team, although they did reach the last eight in Brazil. Being host nation invariably means there is little to seriously gauge the relative strength of their squad, although France remains one of Europe’s biggest player supermarkets – just consider the amount of players involved in transfer window activity. France is the biggest exporter of players among the top five European leagues.

If you look through the current French national squad, you will find one PSG player – Blaise Matuidi. That could send alarm bells ringing, but there are only four others from French clubs. Where France is different to England, who are seeing top talent squeezed out by an over-reliance on foreign players, is that France’s squad is playing for top clubs across Europe while English players rarely step across the Channel. France, at the last count, had less than 30% of its top players from overseas – the lowest number in the top five. Look at PSG, with their heavy Brazilian and Argentinian contingent, and you get a different story.

When France has hosted a major competition, they have usually performed well. In 1984 and 1998, they put on two of the most enthralling shows and won both tournaments. In 1938, they finished third in the World Cup and in 1960, the first European Championship, they were fourth. It is not unreasonable to assume they will be formidable on their own turf in 2016.

With Euro 2016 almost certain to provide further impetus for the domestic game, and a portfolio of excellent locations, France could have just the springboard it needs to move up the pecking order of European football. Il est inévitable, you might say.