Ligue 1 returns hoping to capitalise on French World Cup success

Paris (AFP) –


The dust has barely settled on France's triumphant World Cup campaign, but Ligue 1 returns this weekend with French champions Paris Saint-Germain under new management and with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar taking superstar billing.

Less than four weeks after France beat Croatia 4-2 in Moscow to lift the World Cup for the second time, sparking huge celebrations on the streets of Paris and around the country, the trophy will be paraded at the Stade Velodrome when Marseille play Toulouse in the first game of the season on Friday.

Eight players based in Ligue 1 were in Didier Deschamps' squad in Russia, although of that group only PSG's teenage superstar Mbappe was a regular.

The 19-year-old took the tournament by storm and won the award for the best young player after scoring four goals in Russia, including one in the final.

While Neymar's long-term future remains the source of constant speculation, Mbappe's World Cup performances suggested he can be the real poster boy for PSG going forward.

That applies for the league as well, which still boasts the two most expensive players in the world -- the transfer window does not close until the end of the month -- and will now be eager to capitalise on the national team's success.

Ligue 1 still lags behind its main European rivals financially, but things are changing for the better.

TV rights for the four seasons from 2020 were sold in May to Chinese-owned group Mediapro for 1.15 billion euros ($1.33 billion) a year, a huge increase.

In an attempt to build on the impact of the World Cup, while also acknowledging Ligue 1's status as a fertile breeding ground for brilliant youngsters, the LFP are promoting their competition internationally as "The League of Talents".

"Even if there are only eight members of the France team playing in Ligue 1, the word France is there as the common theme. It is an extra argument in our favour and makes investors want to watch what is happening in France," said Didier Quillot, the LFP's director general.

Foreign investors are showing more interest, with an American group closing on a takeover at Bordeaux.

Marseille, last season's Europa League runners-up, are already in American hands, while Monaco have been reinvigorated in recent years under Russian ownership.

- Tuchel in at PSG -

But it is PSG, with the vast wealth of their Qatari owners, who are favourites to win the title again.

Thomas Tuchel has been appointed as coach to replace Unai Emery, who won the domestic treble last season but oversaw a disappointing Champions League exit against Real Madrid.

Improving in Europe is the big objective for Tuchel, the svelte German formerly of Borussia Dortmund. But he must also deliver at home, with PSG looking for a sixth title in seven seasons.

Under pressure to adhere to UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, there has been no big splurge in the transfer market yet, but Gianluigi Buffon, now 40, has arrived on a free from Juventus.

Forever linked with Real Madrid, Neymar has insisted he is looking forward to working with the new coach.

"He's a great coach and we're hoping for a great season," the Brazilian told AFP recently.

PSG should be far too strong for their main challengers, who are likely to again be Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.

Monaco have lost key players including Fabinho and Thomas Lemar. But a host of new signings have come in, most notably Aleksandr Golovin, a 30 million-euro recruit from CSKA Moscow after starring for Russia at the World Cup.

Their coach Leonardo Jardim is targeting another top-three finish, although he is anticipating the toughest campaign since his arrival in 2014.

"Our opponents will be stronger than in the last few years. That is why this could be our most difficult season," Jardim told Nice Matin.

Along the Cote d'Azur, Patrick Vieira is in as coach at Nice, while Ligue 1 is also becoming the latest championship to adopt Video Assistant Referees after the system was used at the World Cup.