French football hails Messi’s PSG move, but will the beleaguered Ligue 1 benefit?

Lionel Messi has signed a two-year contract with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain.
Lionel Messi has signed a two-year contract with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

Paris Saint-Germain’s surprise signing of Lionel Messi has been hailed as a shot in the arm for France’s cash-strapped football league, but experts warn that the Argentine superstar’s arrival is not all good news for an increasingly unbalanced Ligue 1.


Call it the revenge of the “farmers' league”.

As the least prestigious of Europe’s major football leagues, France’s Ligue 1 is well-accustomed to the derogatory moniker, the “farmers' league”. But now that the world’s most famous footballer has joined the farm, it’s time for a little payback. 

On Tuesday night, hours after Lionel Messi signed a two-year deal with Paris Saint-Germain, the league’s Twitter account posted an image of a goat leaning on a farm’s fence with the shirts of Ligue 1’s top players hanging on either side. The caption read, “The farmers have a new goat” – a reference to Messi’s unofficial standing as football’s “GOAT” (Greatest of all time).

Capping a decade of sensational signings by Qatar-owned PSG, the Argentine’s surprise move to Paris has been met with a mix of shock and delight in France, where few pundits had openly entertained the idea that Messi would one day play Ligue 1 football. In terms of prestige, it dwarves even the club’s record €220 million purchase of Neymar in 2017.

In unusual comments praising a club's transfer dealings, Ligue 1 chief Vincent Labrune – a former president of PSG’s arch-rivals Marseille – celebrated Messi's signing as a big win for French football in a statement on Wednesday.

“Messi’s arrival will bolster the attractiveness and visibility of our championship across continents,” Labrune said, thanking the club’s owners for creating what he called one of sport's biggest global franchises.

Instead of lamenting the widening gulf between the free-spending Parisians and the rest of the pack, PSG’s domestic rivals have also hailed the arrival of Argentina’s six-time Ballon d’Or winner.

“Can you imagine Messi coming to town?” asked Saint-Etienne coach Claude Puel, celebrating a “huge boost” for the French league.

His Brest counterpart Michel Der Zakarian struggled to contain his enthusiasm, telling reporters: “We say that we have a shit league, but if we manage to bring in a player like that, it would be exceptional. I’m not going to be polite here – but he gives me a hard-on.”

Is he the Messiah?

In normal times, PSG’s rivals may well have frowned at the Parisians’ latest move to catch another star. But these are no ordinary times for clubs whose revenues have been hollowed out by the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many teetering on the edge of a cliff. Indeed, it’s no surprise French football sees a saviour in the Argentinian superstar, whose name is pronounced the same way as the French word for Messiah (“Messie”). 

According to economist Christophe Lepetit, a member of French football’s DNCG auditing body, Paris Saint-Germain’s lavish spending has helped raise Ligue 1’s profile by luring the world’s top players to France. 

“In recent years, the club’s high-profile signings have countered the notion that the Ligue 1 is a ‘farmers' league’, and Messi’s arrival will further debunk the myth,” he says. 

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PSG’s star transfers – which in recent years has included the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, David Beckham and Kylian Mbappé – have also helped to qualify another criticism levelled at Ligue 1: that it is merely a “feeder league”, nurturing young talent that is then sold off to the highest bidder. Instead, Lepetit says, “PSG prove that French football can also attract and hold on to the biggest stars in the game.”

The challenge for Ligue 1 officials is now to ensure the league’s heightened star power translates into an increased global audience – and thus greater revenue. 

“Talent scouts are already very familiar with the French league, but many in the wider public may discover it now, thanks to Messi,” says Lepetit. “And by watching PSG’s league games, they may discover new players and clubs they want to follow.” 

Boosting Ligue 1’s global audience is crucial to French hopes of improving the rotten deal they get from television broadcasters when compared with Europe’s “big four” leagues: England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga. 

Three years ago, Neymar’s signing helped push the value of Ligue 1’s international broadcasting rights from €25 million up to €80 million. But that is still only a fraction of what the Premier League and La Liga earn, and less than half the money fetched by the Italian and German leagues. 

With legions of fans scattered across the globe, Messi should be an even greater pull than Neymar. Unfortunately for the French league, however, news of his arrival comes just days after it signed off on a new three-year broadcast deal following months of bitter wrangling – meaning the Argentine will be aged 37 by the time that deal expires.

A dead rubber?

Until a more lucrative deal is signed with the broadcasters, and the dividends are spread out across the board, there is little evidence to suggest that other French clubs will benefit from PSG’s most prestigious signing yet.

Amid the euphoria prompted by Messi’s arrival, some have likened his move away from his boyhood club Barcelona to that of another illustrious Argentine, the late Diego Maradona, more than three decades ago. But Maradona’s bold 1984 switch to Italy was precisely what Messi’s transfer is not: a transformative move that singlehandedly put southern minnows Napoli – then the butt of rival Italian fans’ racist jokes – on the football map, breaking the richer northern clubs’ stranglehold on Serie A. 

>> Messi’s tearful departure encapsulates Barcelona’s sad decline

Instead, analysts warn that Messi’s move to PSG will only widen the chasm between the phenomenally wealthy Qatar-owned club and its domestic rivals – a divide that arguably does more harm to the French league’s global standing than the actual quality of the football produced.

“What we’re seeing is the further strengthening of the one club that already outstrips all others, at least in terms of the stars at its disposal,” says sports economist Jean-Pascal Gayant at the University of Le Mans.

“If Messi had signed for another French club, rather than the one that already dominates all others, then yes, that would certainly have heightened interest in the French league,” he says. “But it’s the opposite that’s happening.”

According to Gayant, PSG’s signing of an umpteenth superstar is both good and bad news for French football, adding to the pool of talent on display but also increasing the competitive imbalance between clubs. 

“Two factors determine a sport’s attractiveness: the amount of talent on display and the level of competitiveness, without which there is no suspense,” he explains. “In this case, an increase in the first factor will almost certainly be offset by a further decline in the second.”

More worryingly for Ligue 1 officials, and indeed their European peers, Messi’s move threatens to widen the disconnect between Europe’s heavyweight clubs, like PSG, and smaller outfits. In this respect, Gayant argues, it increases the likelihood of a future split between a continental “Superleague” and second-tier domestic leagues.

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