Traditionally placed behind the English Premier League,Spain’s La Liga andItaly’s Serie A,France’s Ligue 1 has long been seen as a sub-league and one with limited interest to fans of European football. However, following the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by Qatar Sports Investments and their consequent heavy investment over the summer, people are really starting to sit up and take notice of French football. Interest in the league has grown massively over the past two months and looks set to steadily increase throughout the new campaign.
One of the reasons that France has found itself so far behind the other European leagues until recently is Ligue 1’s failure to produce a side that has achieved things in European competition. Not since Monaco in 2004 has France even seen a side reach a European cup final and on that occasion Didier Deschamps’ side were beaten by José Mourinho’s Porto. Nobody has come close following that, not even Lyon during their seven consecutive league titles between 2002-2008 could get further than the quarter finals.
In fact, you could argue that Lyon’s domestic hegemony set French football back during these years as Ligue 1 suffered from a dearth of competition because l’OL were able to poach the best talent from other sides within the league and add it to an already strong squad whilst buying in top foreign talent with money earned in great transfer deals for their best performers. The club’s astute transfer policy of signing promising young players such as Florent Malouda and Michael Essien and then selling them on for large profits paid dividends as they drew away from the chasing pack until Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux side caught them in 2009. However the fact that even Lyon, France’s football superpower at that time, were getting raided of their best talent consolidated Ligue 1’s reputation as a “finishing school” that nurtures talent before selling it on to a bigger league once the player has matured.
As a result of this situation, French football was running the risk of becoming a second-rate competition in terms of its reputation and something needed to change. Since Lyon’s last title win in 2007-2008, Ligue 1 has had three different winners and the competitive nature of the league has been restored as Lyon were eventually hauled back by their rivals. However, l’OL still dominated the league in terms of their ability to spend money and weaken their domestic rivals, at least until now.
QSI’s takeover at PSG marks the beginning of a new era for French football. Gone are the days where Ligue 1 could only dream of boasting the biggest name players in world football there, it now has a club who are capable of challenging the richest sides in the world for the best talent and they are set to become France’s most identifiable team. The move has coincided with Al Jazeera’s purchase of both the domestic and international television distribution rights for Ligue 1 and, for those that don’t know the President of PSG’s new board is Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the owner of Al Jazeera Sport. Although he insists that the two are purely coincidental, QSI now want to turn the perennially underachieving capital club into the flagship team for French football that will be beamed to millions of people through the Qatari TV channel as of next year.
Although the club welcomed seven other high quality new arrivals this summer, the biggest attraction to the club so far is that of €42million marquee signing Javier Pastore. Snatched from under the noses of some of Europe’s biggest clubs and the subject of an intense tug-of-war between PSG and Chelsea, the Argentine international represents a massive coup for both the club and the league. It is also a sign that Ligue 1 is now catching up with its more established rivals on the continent and illustrates a shift in status, most notably between French and Italian football given that the latter was always thought to be a higher-profile competition given its celebrated history. However, many people have started to question Serie A’s quality given Italian sides’ poor performances in Europe recently and this is the clearest indication yet that Calcio may be superseded by French football soon.
There is now a huge opportunity for growth with QSI’s presence in Ligue 1 and this is something that rival chairmen, players and luminaries have recognised and welcomed with open arms. Lille chairman Michel Seydoux, Lyon supremo Jean-Michel Aulas and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger have all stated their happiness at PSG’s re-birth and bitter rivals Marseille have even acknowledged the positive contributions that the changes will have on French football, albeit with one eye on how it will further ignite their fierce rivalry.
“They’ve had a huge summer of recruitment, and that’s really good for the league” said goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. OM’s Sporting Director José Anigo then added: “You can’t build a great team simply by spending millions to get big names and that’s perhaps where PSG’s weakness will be. We’ll do our best to exploit it.”
This influx of money also means that staying in France is now more appealing to those youngsters considering moves abroad because they were worried about the level of quality in France. The ability to produce so many good youngsters is one of French football’s greatest strengths and, according to recent surveys French clubs are still the most fertile in Europe. Following Laurent Blanc’s comments on wanting players to be playing regular first team football, top domestic talent have spurned offers from all over Europe this summer to stay in Ligue 1 and fight for their place in les Bleus’ Euro 2012 squad. Players such as Yann M’Vila are looking to establish themselves at international level and the decision to move abroad where competition would have been fierce and the player would have spent time on the bench would have meant being overlooked by Blanc so the midfielder decided to stay put for at least another year.
Kévin Gameiro, one of PSG’s high-profile French international signings this summer even credited Blanc’s words as one of his reasons for staying in Ligue 1 this season despite heavy interest abroad.
“I took into account Laurent Blanc’s words, who advised young players to spend another season at a big French club before going abroad. It is important to me as my objective is to participate at Euro 2012. I must prove I can become a regular in the starting XI” he said upon his move to Parc des Princes before the QSI takeover.
With a team that now attracts a lot of interest from all over the world and a lot of money in the league, there is an added sense of competition with Marseille, Lyon and Lille particularly feeling the pressure of PSG’s busy summer recruitment policy. In a league that is known for its competitive nature and unpredictability it will be fascinating to see how the capital club get on given their heavy investment, and nothing less than a top three finish will be acceptable this season. The pressure is already on manager Antoine Kombouaré to get results following a mixed start to the campaign and many expect him to be shown the door before too long to make way for a manager of a similar profile to the club to be appointed, but until then the former defender remains at the helm. For how long remains to be seen…
Jonathan also writes the ‘Le Gossip’ column for Sky Sports and is a member of the French Football Weekly team where he co-hosts the podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @Jon_LeGossip and can find his work on French football at French Football Weekly.