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

16 football clubs sitting outside the elite

SHOULD EUROPEAN football ever morph into a super league structure, the landscape will be substantially changed, no matter how any new league might manifest itself. For the past decade, a set of global, elite players have evolved, but beneath the top layer, there are a number of clubs who have scale and presence, some with back stories that belong to a more democratic age.

Some of these glorious names may be dominant forces in their own backyard but do not have the financial clout to compete with Europe’s gargantuan institutions. Others were once feared names across the continent, metropolitan clubs from major cities such as Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome, Rotterdam and Glasgow.

There will come a time when the football-watching public becomes tired of a system where the same teams win year-after-year. Nobody really enjoys monopolies or duopolies and when a club that has a rich European heritage suddenly finds itself “smaller” than a provincial outfit with very little historical success that has been elevated by geography and commerce, the very definition of “success” has to be questioned.

The cult of celebrity and aspiration, often via the double-edged sword of social media, has created a world where the shiny, noisy and glamorous rise to the surface. In football, it’s no different. And yet, away from the screaming headlines, the incessant well-scripted public relations and media hunger, there are dozens of clubs who remain the most important thing in the daily lives of so many.

Alongside the profile of the elite clubs, their performance underscores their status in the new world order of football. The 2003-04 season can be counted as “year zero” given it represents the beginning of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, a moment in time as important as the inauguration of the Premier League, for it effectively provided the blueprint for modern club ownership. Since then, 13 of the 18 UEFA Champions League finals have been played between two clubs from the Super League 12. To add further fuel to the fire of debate,  41 European Cup/Champions Leagues have been won by these 12 clubs and a further six by Bayern Munich. That’s 47 of the 66 finals.

There have been just 22 winners since the competition began in 1955-56, and of these, half a dozen would be on many lists of clubs who have power and influence, not to mention resources. Let’s not forget that financial strength can be a fleeting benefit and the current problems of Barcelona remind everyone not to take anything for granted. 

So, let’s take a look at the clubs that could fill a second division of a Super League.

Ajax 
Although the Netherlands is a small market compared to the “big five” leagues and does not benefit to the same extent as its peers as commanding a huge TV deal, Ajax is a club with cachet, influence and heritage. Their business model demands that they produce players that can be sold in the market, even though they can call on an average crowd of well over 50,000 at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Periodically, they produce outstanding teams, but sustainability is a problem. Nevertheless, the time lag between golden generations seems to be getting shorter for the ultimate “stepping stone” club.

Atalanta
One of the surprises of Italian football, finishing in the top four in four of the last five seasons in Serie A. Atalanta, from Bergamo, have not won many major honours, but they are not far away from becoming one of Italy’s most progressive clubs. Their biggest problem may be of attaining sufficient scale to become more competitive.

Benfica
Like Ajax, Benfica are at the forefront of their domestic scene and also have a reputation for player development and trading. They also have strong links with South America and relationships with intermediaries. They attract huge crowds at their Estádio da Luz and the club is one of most widely supported around the world. Twice winners of the European Cup, Benfica have not competed at the highest level for some time, but they still qualify for the group stage of the Champions League on a regular basis.

Celtic
European Cup winners in 1967, Celtic are a huge club with massive support and an intsense rivalry with their Glasgow neighbours, Rangers. Although the days when Europe feared the green and white hooped shirts may be long gone, Celtic have enjoyed protracted success over the past decade. Their presence should be greater, but the relative lack of strength in the Scottish game does not help their cause.

Everton
A lack of a trophy for a quarter of a century does not help Everton, whose position in the English game has declined substantially since the 1980s. The future, however, could be much brighter when the club moves to a new stadium that could transform Everton and make them contenders for major honours.

Leicester City
Leicester’s time may have arrived as a pretender for the “big six” in England. They won the FA Cup in 2021 and the Premier League in 2016 and have a reputation for being well-run. They also have owners who have endeared themselves to the local community, as evidenced when their chairman was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the King Power stadium. Leicester have certainly moved up a level and are no longer small in any way.

Napoli
One of Italy’s most intense football cities, Naples has only celebrated two Serie A title wins (1987 and 1990, in the Maradona era), but they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past decade. They have been runners-up four times in 10 years, each time losing out to Juventus.

Olympique Lyonnais
A club that has had its problems, but enjoying big crowds of 48,000-plus and a position of some influence. Founder members of the European Club Association and the so-called G-14.
Although they have been cast into the shadows by the rise of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon have the potential to be far more successful. Their last league title was won in 2008.

Olympique Marseille
The only French club to lift the Champions League, OM last won the Ligue 1 in 2010. Owned by American businessman Frank McCourt, they enjoy 50,000-plus crowds at the Stade Vélodrome but have been in the shadow of PSG for the past decade. In the right circumstances, they could be a huge club once more.

Porto
Porto have also won the Champions League twice and although like Benfica, they are experts at player trading and nurturing talent, this aspect of their business model enables them to rub shoulders with the elite. They are well supported at their Estádio do Dragão, drawing 35,000 to most home games in normal circumstances. Porto, like their home city, is a vibrant club that has produced a number of top players in recent years.

RB Leipzig
The controversial club from the old East German territory, RB Leipzig are a well-run organisation that attempts to nurture young players. Despite this, they continue to attract criticism for their ownership model, which is misaligned to the German 50+1 structure. They have yet to win a major trophy, but their league record is very consistent, four top three finishes in five Bundesliga seasons.

Roma
Another underachieving club, Roma now have José Mourinho as their coach with the aim of competing for the Italian title. Owned by the US Friedkin Group, Roma had hoped to launch a new stadium project but at the start of 2021, it was shelved. The club’s last major success was their Coppa Italia victory in 2008, their last Scudetto in 2001.

Sevilla
Despite only one La Liga title to their name (1945-46), Sevilla have an outstanding record in European football in the 21st century, winning no less than six Europa Leagues, the most recent being secured in 2020. Well supported in a passionate football city, Sevilla have been remarkably consistent, finishing no lower than seventh and in fourth place on three occasions in five years.

Valencia
For a long time, a club that was ranked number four in Spain, Valencia have worked with their financial problems and have strong, devoted support. Their iconic Mestalla stadium may have a limited lifespan, but they regularly draw 40,000. Their last league title was in 2004 and they won the Copa del Rey in 2019. The club also has a rich European history.

West Ham United
One of English football’s most loved clubs is also one of their biggest under-achievers. They have won three FA Cups and one European prize in their long history and rarely challenge at the top end of the league. However, now they are drawing 60,000 to the London Stadium, West Ham could be on the brink of a breakthrough. The current owners are not especially popular, but the arrival of Daniel Kretinsky, who recent bought a 27% stake in the club, could be significant.

Zenit St. Petersburg
Backed by Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, Zenit should be more competitive on the European stage. They have huge support, averaging 48,000 at the Krestovsky Stadium and have dominated Russian football in recent years, winning the league for the past three years.

Honourable mentions: Shakhtar Donetsk, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, Red Bull Salzburg, Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Nice.

This list is by no means prescriptive and there are many ways to slice and dice the second tier of elite European football. You may have your own list.

FC Bayern show why they are Europe’s best

AND SO, UEFA gets the final it probably hoped for, the emerging force of Paris Saint-Germain against German aristrocrats Bayern Munich. New versus old money.

It will be the first time since 1997-98 that two teams have reached the final having qualified for the competition as champions. The fact a team does not have to have won their domestic league makes a mockery of the title and underlines the bloated nature of the UEFA Champions League.

Both teams were also champions in 2019-20, in fact Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have dominated their respective national leagues since 2012, winning 33 major trophies between them at home and abroad. Along with Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid and a cluster of English clubs, they form the modern elite of the global game.

For the first time in years, Bayern may find they are the popular choice for the neutral in this year’s final. Their 3-0 victory against Lyon was predictable, nowhere near as devastating as the desolation of the Blaugrana, but a professional, steady display that absorbed the best Lyon could offer and then pounced. How Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion must wonder what went wrong when they failed to get the best out of Serge Gnabry, for his 18th minute first goal, coming after Lyon had wasted the opportunities that came their way, was an outstanding strike.

By half-time, it was really all over, Gnabry adding another in the 33rd minute, compensating for Robert Lewandowski’s off-night and netting from close range. The rapier-like Pole did get on the scoresheet with two minutes to go to wrap things up, but his finishing looked as off-key as Neymar’s was 24 hours earlier. Teams like Bayern have alternatives when their star man is having a night off, that’s the difference between those with resources and the also-rans.

Nevertheless, Bayern encouraged Lyon by leaving some gaps in defence they should have exploited, but they couldn’t rise to the challenge. Memphis Depay had an early chance and Karl Toko Ekambi struck the woodwork, but then Bayern took control. Later in the game, Ekambi should have done better when he had only Manuel Neuer to beat, but the imposing German goalkeeper is an expert at making himself look even bigger than he is in reality.

Despite the defensive concerns, which PSG will have noted and wondered how the Bavarians will deal with Neymar and Mbappé, Bayern are probably the best team in Europe at the moment. At times, they have been absolutely thrilling to watch, the 8-2 humbling of Barcelona must have terrified the most accomplished defender, but they have also torn apart teams like Tottenham and Chelsea in 2019-20.

It is difficult not to admire how Bayern have done this in a season in which they have changed their manager and come from behind to comfortably win the Bundesliga. Again.

Bayern, like PSG, are on the brink of a unique treble – league, cup and European Cup – a feat achieved only eight times. The last team to manage that impressive haul was Barcelona in 2015. Prior to that, Bayern did it in 2013.  Another name is going to be added to that list whatever happens in Lisbon on August 23.

 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images