Football Media Watch: Why does France seem so unhappy?

FRANCE may be World Champions and UEFA Nations League champions, but all does not seem well in French domestic football. Last weekend, the game between Marseille and Lyon was abandoned after Dimitri Payet, everyone’s favourite punchbag these days, was struck by a flying bottle, the second time this season that he’s been on the end of someone’s anger.

The incident was in the fourth minute of the game and happened as Payet was about to take a corner. L’Equipe reported that Payet has come to the conclusion he doesn’t want to take some set pieces. “I stayed several minutes on the ground, the pain was intense. I am now afraid of taking corners when I play away,” he said.

Daniel Storey of the i newspaper called France “football’s wild west”, such is the level of violence among fans. He added such incidents are becoming commonplace. “It is as if the hooligan element of club support simply bottled up – literally, in the case of poor Payet – their fever over the long period of lockdowns and empty stadia and have sensationally made up for lost time.”

Ligue 1, meanwhile, believes violence is “destroying the image of the league in France and internationally”. Government officials have joined in criticism of clubs and fans. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin, for example, was adamant football should step-up stadium security. The league has reminded clubs that security is the responsibility of host clubs and local authorities.

Sports minister Roxan Maracineau was relatively dramatic in her assessment of the situation, claiming the very survival of football in France was at stake. She added the problem should be solved by the French league and that the game also runs the risk of upsetting broadcasters. “It’s a world where millions of euros are at stake. We cannot afford for broadcasters to fill blanks like the commentators did for an hour when we don’t know if the game is going to continue.” Amazon, who have the rights to Ligue 1, were left waiting for well over an hour for news of what was happening after the players left the field. Given the problems France has had with broadcasters, Maracineau’s warning should be heeded.

This shambolic state of affairs is just the latest in a string of incidents, including pitch invasions, fighting and fan protests. Marseille, who are all too often involved in negative headlines, are not the most popular club, while Paris Saint-Germain are despised because of their enormous wealth. PSG, despite the arrival of Lionel Messi and assorted other high-earners, don’t seem especially happy with themselves, and their coach, the sought-after Mauricio Pochettino, has at least one eye on the vacant Manchester United job. 

The former Tottenham Hotspur coach is possibly the only manager who see the PSG role – a club with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe in their line-up – as a stepping stone towards where he really wants to be. Some claim this team of all-stars has not lived up to expectations, but they have a big lead in the league and are going well in the Champions League, so what do people really expect? The time to assess the success of the current PSG side will be at the business end of the campaign.

And then there’s the financial woes of France’s clubs, who have had an aborted TV deal to deal with and the effects of the pandemic. PSG doesn’t count when it comes to normal clubs, but one of the big guns left trailing by their rebirth under Qatari ownership, Lyon, has been hit hard. In 2020-21, their revenues declined by 35% and their pre-tax loss totalled € 109 million, but their wages still increased slightly to € 134 million. Their wage-to-income ratio was a very disconcerting 113% in 2020-21. The club has net debt of € 260 million. Lyon are not the only club with problems, however.

Monaco coach, Niko Kovač, told L’Equipe that the French league is in the shadows at the moment. “It’s a very physical league with very fast players who are very good technically. This league loses a lot of young talents. But what’s amazing is that you always produce new ones. All these young players that arrive want to prove themselves and play at full speed.” He added that if Ligue 1 could keep its top players, it would be the second best league in Europe. 

French clubs are faring quite well in European competition this season. PSG are unbeaten in the Champions League, as are all three Europa League entrants and Rennes in the Europa Conference. The only team to have lost in the group stages of any of the three competitions are Lille, who have been beaten once and are well placed for further progress.

Of course, these are troubled times and the pandemic has disrupted football in most countries. France has had a decade of almost total domination by Paris Saint-Germain and Ligue 1 is only just hanging onto its status as a top five league. PSG need stronger competition at home to ensure they are well equipped for European action. They have the resources to win almost everything, but how often are they motivated enough to make fantasy football successful on the biggest stage?

Sources: L’Equipe, i, BBC, Goal, Inside World Football, Reuters, Guardian

Barcelona: A bad time for a football empire to end

WE LIVE in strange times and we have come to learn that the unexpected can happen. Who would have envisaged the world would have been thrown into chaos by a pandemic? Actually, the World Economic Forum and World Health Organisation have been warning everyone, for years, that a pandemic represented one of the greatest threats to global stability. But who would have seen the strange collapse of Barcelona, the end of Manchester United’s dominance in England and a World Cup being awarded to that great footballing power, Qatar?

Barcelona’s sacking of Ronald Koeman is no great surprise, but the state of Barca on and off the field, peaking and shocking with the departure of Lionel Messi, is an incredible case of short-term decline. It shows that despite wealth, influence and position in Spanish society, mismanagement of money can bring down even the most powerful of football institutions. But the truth is, it has been coming for a while.

Koeman didn’t have to read Marca or AS to  know his job was on the line; Joan Laporta, the Barca president, had already hinted he wasn’t the man for the job. Koeman hung in there, understandably given the likely pay-off from his employers, but how sensible was it for Barca to let the situation prevail? A manager on his way out, with a squad shorn of its talismanic figure, Barca were heading for problems on problems. The world could see it – what were they waiting for?

The clásico with Real Madrid was quite revealing; two teams that are now far from their highs, Real comfortable winners and a 2-1 scoreline that flattered Barca. Doubtless some of Barca’s younger players will come good, but their team increasingly looks like a hotch-potch of those with time on their side – a la Fati, Gavi and Mingueza – and those with time running away. Koeman was never going to be the sort of coach to deal with the end of an era and provide the direction for the future. The fall of Barca is much bigger than a rebuild or refurbishment. Any club hampered by a wobbly financial foundation is not going to compete with the “petro clubs” in the current climate. Koeman, in hindsight, probably wishes he hadn’t taken the job.

Over the past couple of years, Barcelona have leaked money, built up around € 1 billion of debt, lost star players and have been unable to secure players that were needed for continuity, starting with the loss of Neymar and more recently, the enforced release of Luis Suarez and Messi. La Liga’s “salary cap” took € 300 million off the club’s spending limit, a significant blow to team-building plans.

The situation was so dire that their CEO, Ferran Reverter said the club would have been dissolved in April 2021 if it was a public limited company, after staring bankruptcy in the eye. According to Reverter, there was no cash flow and they had difficulty paying wages. With the debts so high, the club urgently needed refinancing and it has since taken out a credit line of half billion euros with Goldman Sachs, repayable over 10 years.

It wasn’t just the pandemic that brought things to a head, the club would still have made losses approaching € 400 million in normal circumstances. Messi’s departure helped the bloated wage bill, but it is very unclear why Barca allowed their squad to become so old and expensive.

This season has been a disaster, both domestically and in the UEFA Champions League. In La Liga, they haven’t won away from home and have scored just one goal in four games. At the Camp Nou, they’ve won four of six. They currently stand ninth in the table. In Europe, Barca are in danger of failing to make the knockout phase. Heavy defeats against Bayern Munich and Benfica and a narrow win against Dynamo Kyiv make it one point in nine, a meagre total. 

It is in Champions League where the seeds of Barca’s decline can be found – since winning the competition in 2015, almost every campaign has ended in a huge drama, with Barca being on the receiving end each time. In 2016-17, Juventus hammered them 3-0, in 2018, Roma turned around a first leg three goal deficit, Liverpool, in 2019, beat them 4-0 after a 3-0 first leg defeat, then came Bayern’s 8-2 humbling of Barca in Lisbon and finally, last season, Paris Saint-Germain won 4-1 at the Camp Nou. If you consider that in La Liga, Barca should always be around the top three, the European test gauges how strong they really are and the conclusion has to be, they have been a diminishing force for some time.

While the decline may have been inevitable, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Barcelona. The pandemic is one side of the story, but arriving when the team should have been transitioning was certainly not what they needed. Indeed, the football industry as a whole has been taught a lesson from covid-19 – a strong business has to plan for abnormal trading conditions and have money in reserve.

Barca will be back, but it will take skill, patience and a long-term vision. Some of these elements do not come easy for football folk, but there is sure to be some urgency for Barcelona will not take kindly to being also-rans.