Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vive La Ligue 1! The comeback of domestic French football?

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Seemingly always in the shadow of its European neighbours, the French domestic league has for many years suffered from an image of apparent inferiority compared to its German, English, Spanish, and Italian counterparts. Yet the 2016/17 season has showed glimpses that there may be some life left in Ligue 1…

Perhaps one of the greatest surprises this season has been the abundance of entertaining, free-flowing, attacking football on display. With 84 goals scored in 29 league games and 15 goals in this year’s Champions League campaign, Monaco’s goal scoring record is unmatched across all European leagues. More surprising still is that this lethal attack has been led by Colombian Radamel Falcao who rather comically flopped in his brief stint in the Premier League with Chelsea and Manchester United. Not wanting to be outdone, Edinson Cavani has also been banging in the goals this season for Parisian giants PSG; with 40 goals, he is currently the top goal scorer across all major European leagues.

It’s also worth noting the sheer amount young talent passing through Ligue 1. You only have to look at some of the staggering transfer fees received in recent years to appreciate some of the potential world stars learning their trade in France. The Red Devil’s attacker Anthony Martial was snapped up for a colossal £47 million from Monaco who signed the French star for under £5m just two years earlier. Similarly, Ousmane Dembele earned himself a transfer to German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund last summer after shining for Stade Rennais, and Leicester’s title winning starlets Kanté and Mahrez were unearthed from France’s second division, showing the strength and depth of domestic French football. This ever-increasing abundance of high-quality youth in Ligue 1 can be observed in France’s most recent international squad. The newbies included: Tolisso (Lyon), Kimpembe (PSG), Thauvin (Marseille), Mendy, Bakayoko and Mbappé (all AS Monaco). Mbappé in particular has already being tipped for a very bright future.

Image: Corentin Tolisso in action for Lyon. He is one of several young players breaking into the France senior squad. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is all well and good, non-stop goals and young prodigies, but undoubtedly the greatest challenge the French league has faced is in convincing those outside of France that it is worthy and deserving of being labelled one of the biggest and most competitive leagues in the world. This is where it has often stumbled, but now there are signs that there is perhaps hope.

Firstly, there has been a distinct trend of ‘marquee players’ being attracted to the league. The January transfer window saw the arrival of a number of players with a certain gravitas, the sort of player that boosts shirt sales. The German wizard Julian Draxler arrived at the Parc des Princes and has proved a valuable addition to the star-studded reigning champions. In an anticipation to objections that players only really move to PSG and are drawn by the sizeable pay cheque, I would bring attention to the cases of Euro 2016 poster boy Dimitri Payet and defender Patrice Evra, both accepting considerable pay cuts to play in Marseille.

Ligue 1 can boast that far from being a one-sided, monopolised league void of passion and tension, it is incredibly intriguing

As well as the recent addition of some big names, Ligue 1 has attracted more international attention this season due to the captivating title race that has been developing. With the exception of perhaps the Spanish league, all the major European leagues have already all but been decided and in the case of the Bundesliga and the Serie A the usual suspects can be seen miles ahead of the chasing pack, just as predicted. Yet such predictability is being exposed as rather bland and disengaging, especially when compared with the thrilling three-way battle found at the top of Ligue 1 between AS Monaco, PSG and surprise underdogs OGC Nice. Therefore, Ligue 1 can boast that far from being a one-sided, monopolised league void of passion and tension, it is incredibly intriguing – an essential asset in attracting a global audience.

The case of Nice’s success also brings a sense of saga to the league. Following the horrific 14th August terrorist attack, Nice have produced a special kit in homage of the victims and have become the preferred club of the neutral supporter. Matt Spiro, French football reporter, describes how the first game after the attack ‘at least gave this stricken city a moment of happiness, no matter how fleeting. We didn’t know it at the time but that 1-0 win proved the start of something special’. These types of emotional connections give the league a sense of humility that will ultimately appeal to supporters.

Image: The rise of OGC Nice in the wake of tragedy this season has been one of the best stories in European football. (Flickr: Romy Mlinzk, https://www.flickr.com/photos/snoopsmaus/31233192262 )

So clearly the league is doing everything right to become a true success, so what is it that prevents it making that last push into the elite, super-star class of domestic football?

The 2 legs rather appropriately capture the frustrating nature of Ligue 1 football: showing their potential to dominate world football, only to be swiftly, and pathetically brought down to earth

The main impediment to a full-scale Ligue 1 revival is its performance in European competitions. At times incredible, at times abysmal, inconsistency is the key word in this failing equation. Case in point, the talking point of this year’s Champions League – PSG’s capitulation at the hands of Barcelona. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in footballing history, PSG blew a 4-0 1st leg lead to lose 6-5 on aggregate. The fact that PSG flaunted their qualities in outclassing Barcelona in the first leg makes such a defeat all the more crushing. The 2 legs rather appropriately capture the frustrating nature of Ligue 1 football: showing their potential to dominate world football, only to be swiftly, and pathetically brought down to earth. Needless to say, such a humiliating defeat has left PSG the butt of countless jokes and temporarily turned the club into a laughing stock – not a good reflection on French football. However, we can again see that there is reason is to be hopeful with Monaco impressively taming Guardiola’s Manchester City and progressing to the quarter-finals with a promising draw against Dortmund lined up. Also, we mustn’t overlook Lyon’s success in the Europa League, dispatching one of the favourites AS Roma with an impressive attacking display led by much-courted striker Alexandre Lacazette.

Another major problem faced by Ligue 1 has undoubtedly been the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimović. Although it may seem odd that one man could have such an impact on a league, the big Swede represented the presence of a ‘personality’ within Ligue 1. This is vital for the international reach of a league as it is of course the players who will attract foreign fans. Interestingly, Nice’s main-man Mario Balotelli has seemingly finally been tamed, meaning his exuberant persona can be appreciated without the looming threat of him doing something crazy and/or stupid. By no means am I saying that Balotelli possesses the same stature that Zlatan held during his time in France, but he is proof that there will be ‘characters’ in post-Ibrahimović France.

What will become of Ligue 1?

Nothing’s certain, but it does appear that the French league is moving in the right direction, especially in terms of what’s happening on the pitch. To continue this trend however, it will need to improve in three key areas: holding on to young talent, offering international TV coverage, and finally and most importantly performing on the European stage, because to be the best, you’ve got to prove it, and there is no better proof in world football than a nice, shiny Champions League trophy to take back home.

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