Ligue 1 Preview | Strasbourg is not Chelsea

So now that the dust has settled at La Meinau following Todd Boehly and BlueCo’s takeover of Racing Club de Strasbourg, how is the Alsatian club faring under new ownership?

In terms of activity in the transfer market, Strasbourg fans can only be impressed with the investment pumped into the club by the American consortium. So far, Strasbourg has spent €33m, which is only €500k less than their previous eight transfer windows combined. All of this investment has not been balanced with player sales either, with only two senior players, Alexander Djiku and club legend Dimitri Liénard, leaving the club on permanent deals, both as free transfers. With at least two more arrivals almost sealed, it seems that the unprecedented spending at La Meinau is far from over with just under a month left in the transfer window.

This investment may have put some fans’ fears on the back burner for a few months at least – it is safe to say that the overwhelmingly positive reaction from Chelsea fans was not totally reciprocated in Alsace. The Strasbourg Ultra group ‘Ultra Boys 90’ put out a statement a few days after the takeover outlining their stance on the takeover, in which they outlined strict criteria for any new ownership that they, along with other Strasbourg supporter groups, claim to have highlighted to Strasbourg club president Marc Keller back in March.

Key messages from the statement were the importance of retaining club heritage and identity through financial sustainability and supporter involvement in the running of the club. Strasbourg, as a club that has so recently been subjected to relegation to the fifth tier on grounds of economic mismanagement, knows all too well the consequences for failing to adhere to the LFP’s financial protocols.

Much like Chelsea, Strasbourg have a very strong attack on paper, with last season’s top scorer Habib Diallo still at the club, the veteran Kévin Gameiro tied down for a further year, and 20-year-old Dutch prospect Emanuel Emegha signed on a reported €13m deal. Habib Diallo’s 20 goals in Ligue 1 last season made him the league’s sixth highest scorer, ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi and Wissam Ben Yedder. With talented forward junior Mwanga on the verge of signing from Bordeaux, this front line looks to be bolstered further in the coming days and weeks.

Player To Watch: Habib Diarra
The 19-year-old midfielder could be the future of Strasbourg’s midfield if Boehly and Strasbourg can hold onto him long enough – currently valued at €10m according to Transfermarkt, if Diarra can continue his progression, this number could have doubled or tripled come next May. Just a few months ago Diarra was reportedly attracting interest from Aston Villa and Wolves, alongside rejecting a £9m bid from Manchester United. Born in Senegal, the right-footed midfielder has come through the youth ranks at Strasbourg, making his Ligue 1 debut as a 17-year-old in a 5-1 win over Saint-Etienne in October 2021. Since then, he has made 33 Ligue 1 appearances, scoring three and assisting three across 1734 minutes. After an impressive preseason under new boss Patrick Vieira, Diarra will be looking to start most games in the Strasbourg midfield, though with further new signings yet to arrive, competition for places will be stiff. Diarra ranks in the top 2% of midfielders by progressive carries per 90 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues, as well as in the top 9% of midfielders by progressive passes per 90. This would indicate that Diarra is taking up more advanced positions, which is interesting considering when he first broke into the first team squad he was considered a defensive midfielder. Given this information, Diarra could be a key creative outlet providing for veteran striker Kévin Gameiro, new man Emanuel Emegha, or reliable finisher Habib Diallo.

Chelsea Ownership:
Last month, it was confirmed in an official statement on Strasbourg’s website that BlueCo, the consortium headed by Todd Boehly, who owns Chelsea FC, had bought a majority share in Racing Club de Strasbourg. Reports in France suggest that BlueCo came to an agreement with Strasbourg’s previous board of 11 shareholders to purchase the club for £65m.

A key aspect of the deal that may point towards the direction that Strasbourg will take over the coming years is that Marc Keller remains the club president, as he has done since 2012. The former Strasbourg and West Ham player has an affinity with the players and the fans alike, having stepped up as club president after the club went bankrupt in 2011 and had to restart from the fifth tier of French football.

The reaction from the fans of both Chelsea and Strasbourg has been incredibly different. On Chelsea’s side, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Fans are eager to tap into the talent that the French football system has continued to produce over the last few decades. Not only that, but they see it as an opportunity for their youngsters to flourish in a less physical, lower quality league.

On Strasbourg’s side, there is a far less positive feeling. There is a precedent in the club for takeovers by American consortiums; back in 1997, a consortium led by American lawyer Mark McCormack and the IMG Group bought the club with a promise to take the club to new heights. After five years of stagnation and disappointing results, the club was sold, which sparked the downfall of the club, eventually ending in bankruptcy in 2011.

The multi-club model also poses some sporting challenges for the fans and players at Strasbourg. UEFA’s current rules restrict clubs with the same owner from playing in the same European competitions. This means that if Strasbourg were to challenge for European football as they did in the 2021-22 season, eventually falling short in the final few games of the season, they would have to hope that Chelsea do not qualify, else they risk UEFA voiding their rightful qualification.

Many fans in Strasbourg also point towards the sad situation at Troyes, fearing a similar fate. Troyes was acquired by The City Group, owners of 13 clubs globally including Manchester City, back in 2020, and after initially getting promoted out of Ligue 2 that very same year, the investment seems to have dried up, resulting in Troyes’ relegation back to Ligue 2 at the end of the 2022-23 season. No doubt many Troyes fans at the time of the takeover were optimistic for investment and European dreams back in 2020, much like a small section of the Strasbourg fanbase are today.

It must be said that Racing Club de Strasbourg is not a ‘normal’ French club. The club is very much tied to the region of Alsace, and the regional identity that the club has at its very core is key to the fans and the ultras. Strasbourg, despite having a very mediocre season, only escaping relegation with two games to spare, had one of the highest attendance percentages in Ligue 1 this season, selling out all 19 home games. Being on the eastern border of France, away trips tend to be long and arduous for those that travel. Despite all the challenges, on the 35th matchday this season, Strasbourg sold out their away allocation at Troyes, almost 400km away, as well as most of the home end in their bid to support their team on its quest to survive relegation.

Back in May, Ultra Boys 90, one of the main Ultra groups occupying Strasbourg’s kop, put out a statement condemning the then-rumours of a takeover led by Todd Boehly. Within the statement, the UB90 stated that one of their main fears was “becoming an affiliate or feeder club, completely dependent on another club.” The statement also reminded fans to think back to the ownership troubles of the early 2000s under McCormack and later under Jafar Hilali. The press release ended with this: “Let’s not beat around the bush. If Racing Club de Strasbourg were to be sold to someone who already owned one or more other football clubs, we would fight it with all our might, just as we did against Hilali. Together, let’s defend the unique club that we have built.“

UB90 are yet to comment on the takeover now that it has been officially confirmed by the club – but we expect some action leading into next season from fan and ultra groups in Strasbourg. Images are already floating around on social media displaying fans holding banners such as ‘Boehly not welcome’. On the final day of the 2022-2023 season, during the match between Lorient and Strasbourg, there was a rarely seen instance of mutual respect between the ultra groups of both clubs. As Strasbourg ultras raised a banner reading ‘Lorient n’est pas Bournemouth’ (Lorient is not Bournemouth, referring to Bill Foley, owner of Bournemouth’s takeover of the Breton club back in January), the ultras from Lorient raised a banner reading ‘Strasbourg n’est pas Chelsea’ (Strasbourg is not Chelsea).

Ligue 1 and the LFP need to seriously consider what their aim is to keep French football competitive – with more and more clubs in France falling victim to the multi-club model, there needs to be quick action from the French authorities and UEFA before it turns too many historic clubs, like Strasbourg, into soulless feeder clubs to mega-clubs in foreign countries.

James Evans

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