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.

This is what really scares European football

FIFA’s proposal to make the World Cup a biennial event is freaking European football at the moment. Other regions are more enthused about Arséne Wenger’s attempt to throw the game up in the air, but Europe feels seriously under threat by this harebrained scheme. 

Once again, the governing bodies give the impression they speak about a more democratic game, but deep-down, financial opportunism really runs football. Not that anyone will sympathise with Europe’s top clubs, who tried their own game of double bluff earlier in the year. It feels, to some extent, like football has become the wild west of global sport and the only thing stopping complete fragmentation is the knowledge most fans are against much of what is being tabled at the moment.

Heart and Soul

There may come a time when this really doesn’t matter and what will determine the drive for more money and ring-fenced leagues and competitions won’t be what the supporters want, but what high finance, media and marketeers demand. Indeed, we have already seen football can exist without fans, albeit a product that lacks heart and soul, but whenever has the softer elements of football ever been taken into consideration by hard-nosed business people?

However, it is the special feeling a World Cup creates that is also under threat. Too much of a good thing is not to be recommended, especially if players become jaded owing to the intensity of their day jobs as club players. Will we ever get to a stage where every club’s top players are only rolled-out for the big games, allowing them to rest for international football?

Moreover, with more and more countries being invited to the ball, FIFA will run out of eligible venues to stage a tournament. Is the future of World Cups likely to be multi-centred or alternately hosted in North America, the Middle East and China?

FIFA’s proposal plays into the hands of people who want financial growth to become the key motivator in the game, if it isn’t already. Listening to recent football business conferences, the dialogue sounds very similar to banking, fintech or technology events, all acronyms, clichés and corporate speak. Likewise, the scripted presentations, extolling the virtues of companies who claim to be people-orientated, socially responsible and eager to tick all the boxes, makes you question their authenticity and real underlying purpose. Football has become a gravy train for lots of peripheral businesses and they all want a piece of the action. Hardly anyone appears to be trying to solve football’s continued polarisation, excesses and moral code, largely because so many are feeding off the back of it.

Devaluation

There needs to be fewer matches, not just because of player fatigue purposes, but also because certain demographics are being squeezed out of the game due to the sheer cost of watching big-time football. Clubs won’t necessarily champion this, even though it is their players, their fans, that are at the sharp end of crowded calendars, because they crave the revenue. 

In 2019-20, European football’s income declined by 13% to € 3.7 billion, while the top 20 clubs, according to Deloitte, saw their revenues drop by 12% to € 8.2 billion. Recent announcements around 2020-21 figures demonstrate the downward trend and the size of some of the losses. Fewer games will, arguably, mean lower revenues from matchdays and this won’t be dovetailed with lower wages. Generally speaking, footballers’ wages are akin to house prices, they seem to always be in the ascendancy.

Somebody needs to be more transparent about FIFA’s agenda, though. At the recent World Football Summit, Jacco Swart of the European Leagues said that, contrary to FIFA’s claims that the fans want more World Cups, the research his group had seen suggested otherwise.

Swart said that additional and more frequent World Cups could devalue media rights of all other major competitions. Furthermore, an expanded UEFA Champions League will also increase the enormous disparities that prevail in Europe. By 2024, participants will be guaranteed 10 matches in the group stage, which will provide more income and widen the gulf between Champions League clubs and their domestic rivals. A problem that currently exists will only get worse. The introduction of the UEFA Europa Conference League was seen as a positive by Swart as it allows more clubs to benefit from European club competition. The money smaller clubs in lesser leagues get from the Europa League and Conference League is a big boost to their finances.

Nevertheless, the financial disparity between the Champions League and UEFA’s other competitions is substantial. Of this season’s group stage, 10 of the 32 clubs have appeared in all of the last five Champions Leagues, with eight featuring in four and four in three. That’s 22 of 32. All of these clubs have a significant advantage over their local rivals from regular involvement. 

Threat

Some football folk are worried that UEFA’s continued expansion of its franchise may continually threaten the position of domestic leagues with the end game being European competitions taking over the sacred weekend slot. “That will be crossing a red line,” said Swart.

There are also concerns from groups like European Leagues that UEFA’s potential € 7 billion fund will not find its way to the smaller clubs across the continent, but will be directed towards the big names who have racked-up huge debts. Swart commented: “The provision of this facility should not lead to further inequality in the system.”

But what can change the current situation? Since the 21st century began, we’ve had terrorism, a financial meltdown, political unrest and a pandemic. If football didn’t live so precariously, it would not have been so vulnerable when covid-19 came along, but the game has, mostly, proved to be robust and resilient. The pandemic tested the business models of the biggest clubs and their reaction was to try and create a self-serving project to compensate for their own parlous financial situations. 

When a club like Barcelona loses its best player because it cannot afford to keep him, something is definitely very wrong. More World Cups would not be part of the solution, they would merely make the problem worse, and instead of expectation and hope, continual carnival would prompt a shrug of the shoulders and weary sigh. When football loses that aspect of its offering, we are in trouble, for even the Romans found that bread and circuses can have limited appeal.