FEATURE | A Day in Court – French football awaits verdict on Monday/Tuesday after Lyon, Toulouse & Amiens make their case vs. league termination

Yesterday, Ligue 1 sides Lyon, Toulouse and Amiens had their opportunity to make the case to the French national court as they fought from a variety of different angles against the LFP’s decision to prematurely terminate the 2019/20 Ligue 1 campaign.

Lyon challenged the decision on two counts, one the lawfulness behind declaring a season over without all 38 matchdays being completed, and secondly, if this was lawful, then that the only way to fairly decide club classification was through the voiding of the 2019/20 campaign in its entirety.

Toulouse and Amiens did not fight against the halting of the 2019/20 campaign, rather the classification, arguing that a 22-team Ligue 1 season in 2020/21 would be the equitable way of dealing with the COVID-19 imposed French football constitutional crisis, in a scenario that would see neither of the two clubs being relegated to the French 2nd tier.

In a three hour affair that resembled a UFC fight per certain onlookers, all three clubs made their respective cases against the LFP, the French football professional body in charge of all matters of procedure for the top two divisions, and their lawyers.

One major actor in the French Football Farce was not present or represented: the French government, despite their catalysing role in the termination of the campaign, encapsulated by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s 28th April “the 2019/20 French football season cannot be completed” utterance. Instead, the government left it to the LFP to defend “general interests.” This might prove to be a mistake, as the consensus from those present yesterday was that the LFP came across as ill-prepared on certain issues. The ultimate outcome of this hearing will be announced on either Monday or Tuesday next week.

Verbal Jousting

The 180 minute court session included some tense exchanges between Lyon President Aulas and LFP CEO Didier Quillot, the two major protagonists in the last 4 weeks of back and forth about the decision not to complete the 2019/20 campaign.

Aulas passionately argued that he was fighting for all Ligue 1 clubs and against the financial downturn that this decision will have on the French footballing world:

“We are in an unbelievable situation, because of a decision made to stop when we can restart. I am appalled.”

The LFP lawyers got the upper hand in the early exchanges, pointing out the incongruence of Aulas’ position, with him having voted for the premature termination of all amateur football for the 2019/20 campaign as a member of the French Football Federation’s Executive Committee, but yet taking a totally different stance for Ligue 1, the division that the team he owns plays in and who, as it stands, would miss out on European football next season for the first time in the 21st century owing to their league placement after 28 matches played.

Aulas quickly turned his attention to what he perceives as the rank incompetence of Quillot: “For Mr Quillot, who is new in his job, the FFF voted uniquely on amateur leagues. The LFP has chosen thus far to not make a distinction between the professional and amateur footballing world. They have nothing to do with each other!”

Quillot, with his usual, slightly mumbling style, chimed back, taking JMA’s bait: “Mr Aulas reminds us all that I am relatively young in my role, I have been there for 4 years, but that does not mean that I am not capable of managing a Board of Directors!”

Aulas made the financial case to the court in methodical fashion, outlining the extent of the economic impact both on the wider league for taking the decision to truncate the 2019/20 season, even with the government backed bank loan that seeks to tide clubs over, and owned the fact the three clubs present in court had the most to lose (OL by not qualifying for Europe, Toulouse and Amiens through relegation to Ligue 2):

“What we want, is to finish the Ligue 1 season in some form, by returning to as much action that we can. We have never seen something like this before, a classification based on points per game. On the amateur footballing side, why not. But when you take into account the financial stakes at the professional level, Lyon is affected, the town of Amiens has invested to support the club, there’s Toulouse… what has been done is sweeping everything away, the history and investments made into clubs.”

Aulas flirted with airing what appears to be a personal theory of his that a number of forces at the LFP are conspiring specifically against him owing to the outspoken approach that he has taken during this crisis:

“We can still arrange the end of this season, I don’t know why the LFP insists that it does not want to finish the season. Unless I don’t have the full story…”

LFP started strong, finished weaker

The LFP and Lyon have a number of disagreements on multiple levels – the notion of the date of the 3rd August, which the LFP took as an order from the UEFA for all 2019/20 national league matches to be completed by, when in actual fact UEFA President Aleksandr Ceferin wrote in a letter to Aulas last month making it expressly clear that this was not at al the case.

The LFP legal team then made a very weak case that their decision was made to “ensure that the TV rights contract with Mediapro would occur because we were in conflict with Canal + and we did not have any certainty with on the matter on whether Canal + would remunerate and broadcast the remaining matches of a season if it occurred behind closed doors.”

This was an awkward argument to make, especially because Mediapro CEO Jaume Roures told French media just this week that he supported Aulas in his fight to complete the 2019/20 campaign behind closed doors as Mediapro were worried that without this happening, Ligue 1 clubs would have to sell their best assets this summer, which would lead to less entertainment for fans for the 2020/21 season.

The LFP’s lawyers’ argument was that if the completion of the 2019/20 campaign required matches to be played in that season past August 23rd, then it could provide Mediapro with grounds to consider their contractual obligations. Notably because the knock on effect of such a move would be that 2020/21 matches would have to be played in mid-week as well as, as usual, during weekends, to make up for lost time, and midweek audiences are lower for broadcasters. It was a long-winded attempt by the LFP’s legal counsel that did not appear to land particularly well.

Following these exchanges, the national court’s judge on the matter, Bertrand Dacosta, who seemed to really enjoy this particular case, ended proceedings by indicating that on the basis of the arguments made over the course of the afternoon, he would not be taking any options off the table, neither returning to Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 action or siding with the LFP, at least immediately, which felt like a good sign for Lyon.

The issues facing Amiens and Toulouse were given considerably less air time in court, but that does not necessarily mean that the arguments made by the clubs’ respective legal teams were ineffectual.

Dacosta gave the LFP 24 hours (which expire tonight at 18:00 local time) to provide the court with an explanation as to why it would be impossible to organise a 22-team Ligue 1 season for the 2020/21. He also demanded that the LFP provides the correct dates for which the other European leagues will be finishing.

A decision is anticipated on Monday or Tuesday – if the national court rules the decision made by the LFP to prematurely terminate the 2019/20 season as unlawful, then the LFP will likely be forced to call another emergency Board of Directors meeting to present clubs with solutions for how to finish the campaign after all.

A fun anecdote from RMC to emerge: the judge presiding over the case, Dacosta, is an associate professor at Jean Moulin University… Lyon 3.

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