“But they, they have the Europa League matches to play.” Coming from the mouth of Saint-Etienne’s own Christophe Galtier when comparing his team to their eternal rivals across the Rhône, it sounds just like a game. And maybe to some, the Europa League is.
Several weeks ago, ASSE and Nice both bowed out of the Europa League. Defying the odds, Apollon Limassol and Esbjerg showed the two French teams out the door, leaving France with two less teams in European competitions. Déjà vu. That’s all it is to Ligue 1 fans – a déjà vu of seasons past.
To this day, the ghosts of Auxerre, Sochaux, Rennes, Montpellier and Lille are still haunting the Ligue 1. The failure of such teams in recent years have nullified the efforts of other teams, such as Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux. Yet who is to blame?
Truth is, le Championnat has gained quite a reputation in the last decade. After an era dominated by Lyon, Bordeaux realised their dream by knocking Les Gones off the top spot.
After a seven-year period in which Lyon won every Ligue 1 title without exception, another era started – an era where each team knew it had a chance, regardless of its stature. Marseille, Lille, Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain all snatched their chances. In six years, six different teams lifted the Hexagoal.
Teams who were previously recognized as small clubs, regularly involved in relegation battles ousted other teams to get into continental competitions. Teams such as Auxerre, Montpellier, Sochaux and Rennes were all the surprise package in one season or another.
Such feats showed the footballing-world that sport isn’t just about who spends most. Yet this unpredictability made this league one of the most interesting and exciting in Europe is proving to be a double-edged sword.
In 2010/2011, Auxerre and then Montpellier cost France UEFA coefficient points by categorically failing in European competitions. Auxerre crashed out of the Champions League Group Stage with just three points. Meanwhile, Montpellier were embarrassed the same year when they fell at the first hurdle losing to Gyor in the qualification round.
The following year, there were more Europa League disappointments, with Sochaux losing the play-off qualification tie, while Rennes and oil-rich Paris didn’t make it through the Group Stage. Elsewhere, Ligue 1 Champions LOSC Lille finished last in the Group Stage, a fate shared by Montpellier and the same Lille club one year later.
One-by-one, the inexperienced Ligue 1 sides dropped out of continental competitions – this year being Saint-Etienne and Nice. Slowly but surely, in a matter of three years Portugal rose from 8th to 5th in the UEFA coefficients and French clubs are now forced to contest an extra qualification tie in the Champions League.
Reading between the lines, there’s more than meets the eye to what Galtier said. Visibly, participating in the Europa League is seen as an extra hurdle for Les Verts’ coach, maybe an opinion shared by other Ligue 1 coaches who have experienced UEFA competitions.
In a league accompanied by two national cups rather than one, and a tight competition in the Ligue 1, it’s difficult enough to stay afloat without continental competitions in the way.
The financial remuneration is also a stumbling block. The Champions League’s younger brother is rarely a desired competition when it comes to financial rewards. Many clubs should have arguably qualified through easy ties and ended up being on the wrong end of an upset. In fact, too many to be just a coincidence.
Michel Platini has also acknowledged this problem, and the financial difference between the two main European competitions is being bridged, although they’re arguably still miles apart.
Yet underlying all these problems, another unspoken issue lies hidden. Before the oil-rich clubs came by, France could only hold its own on a sporting level. And while other clubs focused on performing well in the championship or focused on obtaining Champions League qualification, the two Olympique clubs and les Girondins demonstrated fighting spirit to improve France’s image. On the other hand, other clubs decide to selfishly ignore the national interest year in, year out.
While France’s top flight is obtaining a reputation of being erratic, it isn’t paying dividends on the big stage. Wary of losing their place in the standings, most French clubs are being turned off by the Europa League’s financial rewards.
They’re choosing the Ligue 1 over a competition they realistically can’t win without an upset. Upsets are still happening though, with Esbjerg and Apollon causing their own at France’s coefficient demise. And now, it’s time for France’s remaining four pillars to step up, just like they have done without rest in the last couple of decades.
Nicholas Mamo, Get French Football News