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

Europe’s Champions: Olympique de Marseille 1993

ALTHOUGH French football played its part in the development of European club competitions, only one has secured the major prize. In 1993, Olympique de Marseille (OM) lifted the huge trophy by beating highly-fancied and star-studded AC Milan.

Marseille went one better than France’s two previous finalists, Reims and Saint-Etienne, and also improved on their 1991 performance when they were beaten by Red Star Belgrade. This proved to be the pinnacle of a period in the club’s history when OM were rarely out of the news. Sadly, not all the headlines were positive, for after being crowned champions of Europe and France in 1993, the club was stripped of its domestic title due to a bribery scandal. They managed to keep hold of their Champions League success, but OM and their owner, Bernard Tapie were, without doubt, tainted by the negative publicity.

When Tapie, a figure described as “boastful, charismatic and seductive”, took over OM in 1986, they were struggling on and off the field of play. Marseille’s goal was to become the greatest team in French football history and their bold ambition was matched by the arrival of some star names. Jean-Pierre Papin, a fast and prolific striker, was signed from Club Brugge in 1986 and he went on to score 184 goals in 279 games for OM before joining AC Milan for £ 10 million in 1992.

OM also signed English internationals Chris Waddle and Trevor Steven as well as Didier Deschamps, who would captain France to World Cup glory in 1998 as a player and 2018 as their coach. Also in their squad was Abedi Pele, an exciting Ghanaian who was one of the finest players to emerge from Africa at the time. 

Marseille were French champions in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 and were beaten on penalties in the 1991 European Cup final. In 1992, they lost Papin but made two huge signings in the transfer market, Croatian Alen Bokšić from Cannes and German striker Rudi Völler from Roma. Between them, they would score 41 goals in Ligue 1 in 1991-93, their first season with the club.

As well as top players, OM also lured German World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer to become Sporting Director, which included a short stint as coach. In 1992-93, the Belgian Raymond Goethals was in charge of the team, a coach who had enjoyed considerable success with Anderlecht.

Despite the addition of high-profile players, OM won the title in 1993 by just two points ahead of second-placed Paris Saint-Germain. Just days before the Champions League final, allegations of match-fixing in a game against Valenciennes were aimed at OM and they eventually lost their title and were relegated to Ligue 2. Tapie was forced to step down as president of the club.

In Europe, OM comfortably beat Glentoran in the first round of the newly-branded UEFA Champions League, an 8-0 aggregate victory. In the second round, they slugged-out a 0-0 draw with Dinamo Bucharest in Romania before winning 2-0 in the Stade Vélodrome with Bokšić scoring both goals. This victory meant OM had qualified for the group stage of the competition and were drawn alongside Glasgow Rangers, CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge. With the other group including AC Milan, Porto, PSV Eindhoven and Gothenburg, Marseille had a slightly easier path – the group winners would meet in the final in Munich.

OM’s chief rivals for a place in the Olympic Stadium were Rangers, a revitalised team that had began to break the mould in British football by attracting players from south of the border. In the first group match, the two teams drew 2-2 in Glasgow, the home side recovering from OM’s two-goal lead. Brugge were easily beaten 3-0 in Marseille before a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Moscow. 

Rangers were matching OM game-by-game, but a 6-0 home win against CSKA Moscow underlined Marseille’s quality. Franck Sauzée, a midfielder with an eye for goal thanks to his tremendous long-range shooting, netted a hat-trick. Sauzée, who won 39 caps for France, was in his second spell with OM and had rejoined in 1991 from Monaco. Also on the scoresheet was Marcel Desailly, who had been signed from Nantes in the summer and would later join AC Milan and Chelsea. This game later had a hint of controversy about it as there were suggestions that somebody had tried to compromise the CSKA players.

Rangers proved to be stubborn opponents and refused to be shaken off, drawing 1-1 at the Stade Vélodrome. The group was destined to be decided in the final games, with OM scoring early in Bruges through Bôksić to win 1-0 and Rangers held to a goalless draw at Ibrox Park. OM finished one point ahead of the Scottish champions and would meet AC Milan in the final. Milan had won all six of their group matches and had conceded one goal. They were a formidable side.

Marseille were highly motivated and knew this was their time. The game was tight and a little cautious but Milan dominated for the first half hour. But for OM keeper Fabien Barthez, the Italians may have been ahead before the interval. However, the final was settled by a first half goal from Marseille defender Basile Boli. Just a few minutes before his decisive goal, Boli had urged Goethals to substitute him because he was struggling with an injury. The plea was ignored and just as well for OM, for Boli headed past Milan keeper Sebastiano Rossi in the 43rd minute. Boli had been particularly crestfallen in 1991 when OM had lost to Red Star Belgrade, so he meant it when he commented after the game, “it was a header for eternity”.    

Tapie was ecstatic, although he admitted the 1991 team that lost in Bari was possibly a better side. The joy was short-lived, though, as the scandal that unfolded not only saw OM lose their French title, but also saw them relegated in 1993-94. They were still European champions, but were disqualified from defending their title. In some ways, Marseille’s situation was a foretaste of owner mistrust in big-time football. Tapie’s Marseille were heavily in debt after his reign ended and the club has never quite been the same. Such a shame that France’s finest moment in the premier club competition has often been overlooked.