France may conjure up a title race in 2023

IN THE SMALL city of Lens there was rejoicing on New Year’s Day – RC Lens beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 to close the gap at the top of Ligue 1 to four points. It was PSG’s first defeat of the season in the league and underlined the impressive run by Les Sang et Or in 2022-23, whose 40 points is the best performance by a second-placed team at this stage of the season since 1959.

PSG were stunned, but they were without Neymar and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, PSG’s owners won’t be impressed that their team was swept aside by opponents who have a playing budget that is but a tiny fraction of the Paris wage bill. Coach Christoph Galtier refused to blame the absence of two of his star men for the defeat, admitting that Lens deserved their win. “Athletically, we were dominated,” he said after the game.

PSG may have been suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Messi was on extended leave, Neymar was suspended after being sent-off against Strasbourg and Kylian Mbappé had reasons for being subdued after losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick. PSG made hard work of their December 28 game against Strasbourg, relying on a 96th minute penalty to win 2-1. Before meeting PSG, Lens had a 100% home record and had lost just once, a 1-0 Derby du Nord defeat at the hands of Lille.


Franck Haiser’s side adopted an aggressive style, pressing constantly and placing PSG under constant pressure. It says a lot about the lack of competitiveness in Ligue 1 that PSG have rarely faced such tenacious opponents in domestic football in recent years. Lens took an early lead but within three minutes, it was 1-1, but goals in the 28th and 48th minutes gave them a shock 3-1 victory. It was PSG’s first defeat since March 2022, a run of 38 games.

But there’s still a long way to go, and over the last decade, there have been a few occasions when a French side looks up for a title battle, but inevitably, PSG have been too strong for anyone to keep pace with them. Only Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 have managed to outperform the Parisians. Lens have one of the smallest wage bills in the division, so even mounting a challenge for part of the season would be something of an achievement.

That’s not to say Lens don’t have some interesting talent, notably Florian Sotoca, the experienced former Grenoble striker and Loïs Openda, the 22 year-old Belgian front man. And then there’s Austrian central defender Kevin Danso, who was excellent against PSG. Seko Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed also caught the eye against the Ligue 1 champions.

French football could do with an exciting second half of the campaign, especially after that heartbreaking World Cup final defeat in Qatar. Lens have shown they know how to get to PSG, but if Neymar and Messi had been in the team, it would probably have been a different outcome. It’s difficult to see the clubs immediately behind Lens – Marseille and Monaco – making much of a statement, but the result at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis will act as a form of inspiration. The transfer window is opening and that may be bad news for the rest of Ligue 1. PSG will undoubtedly be busy in the coming weeks. The question is, do Lens have what it takes to remain in contention?

Brazil: Another unexpected exit as Neymar era ebbs towards its close

ADD little Croatia to the list that includes Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France. Every time Brazil come up against a decent European side in the knockout stages, they struggle. Since they last won the World Cup, Brazil have never won a KO game against a European nation. Since then, they have been humiliated in their own turf by 7-1 against Germany and thrown away leads against the Dutch and Croatians, as well as losing to the unfulfilled Belgian golden generation. Each time, defeat has been accompanied by tears of disbelief, national mourning and forensic analysis of why the most successful World Cup country falls short of enormous expectation so often.

Brazil was anticipating the so-called “Hexa”, a sixth World Cup triumph. The public was confident, perhaps too confident – a poll by Apoema suggested 71% of the Brazilian people thought they would win in Qatar – and the squad certainly had the look of a multi-talented unit that epitomised some of the finer qualities of their football. And then there was a more mature, more focused Neymar, playing in his third World Cup. The competition was also seen as a distraction from the recent election in which the Seleçaõ’s sacred yellow shirt was adopted by some right wing groups. The football could return the shirt to its rightful place as the symbol of a nation’s sporting heritage.

Brazil versus Europe, 2006 to 2022

Group games7520102
KO games6015416

+Includes 1-1 draw with Croatia 2022, lost on penalties

Brazil, obviously, qualify with ease for each World Cup and have lost just five times in 71 CONMEBOL qualifying games. Each time they make it through, they are among the favourites and most eagerly awaited teams in the finals. The current squad looked like the strongest in some years, without being full of ball-juggling stars. Brazil are no longer a team of mystery that comes out of hiding every four years, their 2022 squad includes 22 players who ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues, including 12 from the English Premier. Only three came from the Brazilian domestic league.

Highs and lows in Brazilian World Cup history

  1950 runners-up
195828 years since 1930 – Winners 
19624 years on – Winners 
  1966 Group exit
19708 years on – Winners 
  1982 Defeat in second stage
199424 years on – Winners 
  1998 finalists
20028 years on – Winners 
  2014 Semi-final humiliation
202624 years since last triumph 

Neymar continued to attract most attention, but he is no longer the 22 year-old wonder boy waiting to assume the role of world’s best player. He has been usurped by his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappé and by rising stars like Erling Haaland of Manchester City. His time has gone as a potential Balon d’Or winner, a trophy he coveted when he arrived in Paris. He is, of course, still capable of sheer brilliance, but he has been somewhat injury-prone and he doesn’t appear enough. He has played, for various reasons, barely 50% of possible Ligue 1 games since he joined PSG. While he was the centre of everything when he moved to France, he now seems like a bit-part actor in a drama that still hasn’t reached a climax. PSG want the UEFA Champions League but there are rumblings that Qatar may be willing to loosen their grip on the club now that the World Cup has arrived and almost gone. Neymar was arguably part of the Qatari plan and a mere € 222 million was paid to take him to PSG.

Brazil rely heavily on Neymar and the goal against Croatia showed why, but if they are who they believe they are, they shouldn’t have to pin their hopes on one player. If they become so dependent on one shirt, it is easy to render that player harmless by constantly fouling him. Neymar has always been a target of cynicism, even if his critics say he brings a theatrical touch to every tackle. “Stop Neymar and you stop Brazil,” is undoubtedly on the minds of every coach that goes into battle against Brazil.

Their World Cup ended at the quarter-final stage for the fourth time in five World Cups, by the time their next opportunity comes around, in 2026, they will have gone the same length of time they endured between 1970 and 1994. The chances are, Neymar won’t be there in 2026, he will be 34 years old and a fresh generation of players will have emerged, which also means a new prodigy will have the same weight placed on his shoulders to carry the legend (and myth) of Brazilian football. Neymar is destined to never have HIS World Cup to provide the gilding on his career. Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane had theirs, even if, in Cruyff’s case, it ended in defeat. Neymar has never completed a World Cup as its star player – 2014 was supposed to be his time, but he was injured and Brazil capitulated awfully in that shocking semi-final against the Germans.

Even in defeat against the underrated Croatians, Neymar courted controversy. Amid the tears – lots of them – was the glaring fact that Neymar had not taken a penalty in the shoot-out, that he was undoubtedly waiting for kick number five to claim the glory. In fact, Brazil’s spot-kicks were so bad they didn’t reach the fifth. But as the talisman of his national team, why didn’t he take the first, confidence-inducing kick to provide inspiration to his team? Perhaps the sobbing represented tears of regret or guilt?

And so, Brazil search their souls once more and add Doha to their list of emotional football disasters. Sooner or later, they may realise that despite their craving for victory in a sport that helps define the Brazilian character, so do their opponents. When 2026 comes around, the pressure cooker will be building up steam once more.