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Can French football clubs finally break into the elite?

FRANCK FIFE / AFP | This file photo taken on April 22, 2017 shows Paris Saint-Germain's Spanish head coach Unai Emery look on during the French L1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain AND Montpellier
6 min

“If we want to compete with the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid and win the Champions League, then we will need someone from the top five” players in the world.


So said Paris Saint-Germain boss Unai Emery on 20 July.

But despite being one of the wealthiest football clubs in the world thanks to their Qatari owners, PSG struggle to attract talent on that level. Emery’s big gambit this summer is an attempt to sign Barcelona striker Neymar – an excellent talent, although no Lionel Messi. It is not clear yet whether Neymar will move; in any case, it has been a protracted struggle to sign him. Now hype also surrounds PSG’s attempts to sign Arsenal midfielder Alexis Sanchez.

That hype says more about the hopes and pretensions of PSG – and French club football more broadly – than it does about Sanchez. If he is PSG’s only big signing, Sanchez is only marginally more likely to transform PSG into a Champions League winner than I am. He transferred from Barcelona to Arsenal in 2014 because he struggled to compete with their outstanding midfield talents Xavi and Iniesta.

Since then Sanchez has been Arsenal’s key talent – with such a transformative positive effect on the Gooners that they have continued their decline, slumping below Champions League qualification to 5th place in last season’s Premier League. Dani Alvez is the only top-drawer player to move to PSG this summer. As a right-back he does not play in the right position to have a transformational effect.

Not at the top level

The overblown hopes of PSG – France’s grandest club – are symptomatic of the fact that, for now at least, French club football is not top level. Year after year, fewer people are drawn to watch their top flight, Ligue 1, than the English, Spanish, German and Italian equivalents. That is while at 5th place Ligue 1 consistently lags behind those 4 countries’ top flights in the UEFA club coefficient rankings, in which European football’s governing body measures the quality of national leagues according to their clubs’ results in the Europe-wide Champions League and Europa League tournaments.

Monaco surprised football fans by reaching the 2016-17 Champions League semi-finals. But in a further sign of French football’s weakness, England’s Manchester City have poached their brightest talents, full-back Benjamin Mendy and midfielder Bernado Silva.

Only once (Marseilles in 1993) has a French team won the Champions League, the gold standard in club football, known as the European Cup before 1992.

France has only enjoyed 5 runner-up positions. Contrastingly, Spanish teams have achieved 17 Champions League wins and 11 second-places. Those figures are 12 and 16 for Italian clubs, 12 and 7 for English ones, and 7 and 10 for the Germans. Even the top flights of the Netherlands and Portugal – far smaller countries than France – have vastly outperformed Ligue 1 at this highest level. The Dutch can brag of 6 Champions League wins and 2 second-place finishes; Portuguese clubs have attained 4 and 5, respectively.

Circle of success

The most likely reason for this relative weakness of French club football lies in the history of the game. Strength begets strength for football clubs. Teams with a legendary history, with an aura of romance and years of successive victories are obviously attractive to the world’s top players, fans and viewers. The greatest talents go where they can win big.

In the four other big European football countries, teams established and entrenched their pre-eminence in the ’60s and ’70s, when football’s international popularity really got going – the likes of Manchester United in England, Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Internazionale in Italy and Bayern Munich in Germany.

Such teams profited from successive victories attracting the next top players, which in turn leads to further victories in a process that continues to this day. French clubs lagged behind in the ’60s and ’70s. St Etienne played impressive football, but – crucially – failed to win at the European level.

Clubs that play in distinctive styles also attract top players and the fans and viewers that bring the revenue to buy them. In England, Spain, Italy and Germany, teams have pioneered novel approaches to the game. Such innovative tactics and formations have brought victories in and of themselves. They have also influenced lesser clubs in the same leagues – raising the level of competition week in, week out. They have also attracted world-class players from around the world seeking to learn new skills.

Look at the trademark counter-attacking style of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, Barcelona’s scintillating fluid possession play under constant development since Johann Cruyff’s reign in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the slow build of play from creative defenders and holding midfielders displayed with finesse by an array of Italian teams, the power, pace and brute strength exemplified by Germany’s Bayern Munich … French clubs have never created such alluring signature styles.

The 'Big 5'?

All that said, during the past ten years a new phenomenon has emerged in which world-class teams have been quickly built as new owners have poured in money to attract outstanding players. Yes, players want prestige, but often they cannot refuse the obscene sums of money on the table. England's successful nouveau riches Chelsea and Manchester City can testify to that.

PSG is not the only club with such money at its disposal. Monaco has a similarly wealthy owner; so does Lille. Neymar and Sanchez moving to PSG would not be enough to take French club football to the next level – but it may well give France a lure for other top players.

That’s while the relaxed schedule of Ligue 1 football – not to mention the relentless competition to be played elsewhere – has made it a fertile ground for hitherto overlooked talents. Take for example Colombian striker Radamel Falcao. He struggled for games and goals alike at Chelsea and Manchester United. But he is now flourishing at Monaco.

And Monaco reaching the Champions League semi-final might not be the one-off many pundits have dismissed it as. Just a step down from that level, French teams have been doing increasingly well. They have reached the tournament’s quarter-finals 6 times in the last 5 years. English teams have only managed this 4 times in the same period.

People talk of England, Spain, Germany and Italy as the club football’s ‘Big 4’ nations. If the rich owners of PSG, Monaco and Lille all let rip with their checkbooks, it won’t be long before we talk of the ‘Big 5’.

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