July is usually a very calm month in the football calendar. The domestic season is over and international tournaments are concluded as we follow the clubs’ permutations via the transfer window. Communication is not exactly transparent from clubs to the media in the poker game that is the summer transfer window. Only in this particular July, we still don’t know how many sides will be promoted and relegated in France’s top division: two or three?
Summer uncertainty is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of which club plays in which division due to the DNCG, French football’s financial watchdog, having the overwhelming power to disallow a side’s promotion that they work hard for on the pitch. This summer has thrown a new scenario as the DNCG not only threatened not to promote Troyes – who won Ligue 2 by a considerable margin in 2014/15 – but also exposed Bastia to a second tier demotion despite the Corsican outfit finishing 12th last term. Both sides eventually put their house in order and will both be playing top draw football in about a week’s time.
The LFP (Ligue de Football Professionel – the French League) now wants to change the promotion/relegation system in order to entice investors. While I fully support LFP chief Frédéric Thiriez in his hunt for better finances in French football (meaning a rise in budgets, wages, infrastructures) a lot of people are quite adamant that narrowing down excitement at the foot of the table is not the way to go.
The decision was not welcomed by anyone in particular when it was mentioned back in May but was not exactly criticised by most Ligue 1 clubs either. After an internal row which saw the decision confirmed by the LFP board, the FFF (the French FA) have overruled this decision thinking it unjust to lower league clubs trying make it to the top. This interesting turn of events – a fortnight before the league resumes – has been criticised by Thiriez of course, who comes across as the corporate evildoer killing amateur football (an aspect I will develop on later). However, this time around, Thiriez is backed by two Ligue 1 chairmen: OM’s Vincent Labrune and Lorient’s Loïc Féry.
The former has had a challenging summer to say the least. Marseille narrowly avoided qualification for a Champions’ League play-off and have since sold its main assets and recruited unproven and over-the-hill players as deputies. If anything Labrune’s side taking of Thiriez proves what a weak businessman he is and how little comfort he seems to bring to the common man. (I mean, honestly, would you give that guy millions to spend if you were Margarita Louis-Dreyfus?)
Féry is a more modest person working for a more modest club and looks a person with a tight purse string. Both club chiefs argument is of course valid (we want to keep earning lots of money (read Ligue 1 TV rights) because if we don’t, we cannot progress).
I mentioned Thiriez’s corporate shenanigans because he is the person with the most sizeable history of promoting top-club revenue over lower-league development. While it may seem unfair, France is not the only country where this strategy is deployed and the blame should really fall on the shoulders of a group od people, most of whom are nowhere near as mediatized as Thiriez, who often shift blame on others because they do not want their name printed in the press, something that Thiriez seems to crave. I am one of the last to defend Thiriez but you have to admit that he stays true to his beliefs and does not seem to mind having a vast working-class community abhorring him (having friends in high places can help in that respect).
Before enumerating the biggest trauma Thiriez has caused over the years, let us admit that he has done some good things for French football. During his 13-year reign, he has increased TV revenues by 150% (from 271M€ to 670M€) in France and by 171% (from 7M€ to 19M€) abroad. Those figures have been negotiated for the 2016-2020 period and will total 800M€ and 60M€ respectively. One could argue that the rise in popularity of Paris Saint-Germain is a plus point but Thiriez is selling his product well and has a firm hand. Thiriez has also ensured that France were the first country to host games where referees had earplugs for faster and clearer communication with their assistants. Finally, after the tragic passing of Marc-Vivien Foé – a former Lens Cameroonian who died during a confederations cup game – Thiriez has made compulsory the availability of defibrillators and a strict update on every players’ heart condition with medical exams once a year.
Most of the time, Thiriez’s name is in the press for the wrong reason. However, the vast majority of those inclusions are due to the perceived, poor standard of refereeing and the general school of thought is to blame it all on big bad Thiriez, which is unfair. With this particular battle though, Thiriez is clearly making himself l’homme à abattre. His doctrine effectively states that professional clubs need to be protected from the plight of amateur clubs.
What happened last summer with Luzenac and Lens (both clubs got promoted but didn’t have the funds to play at a higher level, so Luzenac were denied promotion while Lens needed the FFF to confirm promotion; as it turns out both clubs’ finances were shocking and the DNCG denying promotion to those clubs makes a lot of sense from a pragmatic point of view at least) was a clear situation where the LFP were basically denying clubs to get promoted despite doing the business on the pitch. Historically, French clubs have attempted to live outside of their means and many clubs have been dissolved because of that (Gueugnon being the most recent example, they were extinguished in 2011 after winning the Coupe de la Ligue in 2000) but what Thiriez is doing is basically taking this cost-controlling obsession to a new level.
By reducing the amount of promoted sides from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1, Thiriez is ensuring that the increase in TV money earned from a promotion is distributed into the coffers of 2 clubs instead of 3, making the transition from one division to another financially easier. It is a very backward strategy which will narrow the spectacle. Back in February, this column successfully predicted the relegation of Lens and Metz to Ligue 2 with 3 months of the season yet to be played (this column also predicted that Reims, not Evian would go down) meaning that had the decision been taken last summer, the relegation fight would have been over in winter instead of on matchday 36. Of course, last season was particular in the sense that we have had several seasons previously where the bottom 3 was known to everyone by November (in 2009/10, Le Mans, Boulogne-sur-Mer and Grenoble spent most of their season in the bottom and Saint-Etienne were still 8 points clear of danger when the season ended) but let’s try to increase the probability of excitement, not decrease it.
Thankfully the FFF is looking to put a spanner in the LFP’s works and going to trial over this conflict. Patrick Kanner, the current sports minister, has described the situation as a mess less than a year before Euro 2016 and it is. Not only must the FFF stand their ground and win a battle that could make or break the interest of the league in the coming seasons, but Thiriez must start to look around and notice that the introduction of promotion play-offs is something far more interesting to consider. All of our neighbours are doing it in different ways (I’m a big fan of the English model to have 2 automatic promotions and 4 play-off spots; I don’t like the German model which sees the 3rd bottom of the top tier playing a home and away tie (away goal rule enforced) against the 3rd of the second tier) and I think it would give Ligue 2 the attention it deserves. France still has a big divide between Ligue 1 fans who take little to no interest in Ligue 2. Talks of National (the 3rd division) are sadly very premature.
I cannot see a man like Thiriez – someone who does not seem to care a great deal about the ramifications outside of Ligue 1 circles of his decision-making – giving the lower leagues any kind of credit in the short-term. My suggestion would be to appoint someone dedicated to the second tier and let Thiriez do the business when big bucks are at stake. He does that very well all things considered.