For a number of years, rose-tinted observers of the Premier League have continued to dub England’s top division as the ‘best in Europe’ if not ‘the world’, owing to it’s competitiveness, frenetic pace and feverish fan support. Based on those parameters, they have a pretty compelling case that is difficult to argue. Germany’s Bundesliga would dispute the latter however and can lay claim to higher average match attendance, while La Liga, the crown jewel of the Spanish pyramid, is where arguably the world’s biggest clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, ply their trade.
Let’s not forget either how Serie A used to dominate the football landscape; in the 1990s it was the Mecca for the world’s best talent, the likes of Weah, Batistuta and Ronaldo at their peaks (not that Ronaldo kids). Milan and Juventus were ever-presents in the final of the Champions League until Madrid’s galáctico era really began to take shape and power shifted to Spain, while the Premier League, with eight UCL finalists between 2005 and 2012, enjoyed a period of success it hadn’t seen since the 80s.
In truth, between all of Europe’s top four professional leagues each has had it’s presiding eras and using the European Cup as a measure of prosperity, in 47 of the competition’s 61 years a club from either Spain, Italy, England or Germany has hoisted Ol’ Big Ears’ aloft above their heads. So the burning question is this: Where is the French league’s success?
On just one occasion has a club from Ligue 1 won Europe’s premier club competition, Marseille in 1993, with a 1-0 victory over Milan in Munich. Raymond Goethals’ side had also finished runners up two years prior in ’91 and had a squad packed with French talent, captained by Didier Deschamps, featuring youngsters Fabien Barthez and Marcel Desailly and an attack spearheaded by German marksman Rudi Voller.
Paris St Germain would win the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996, but that remains the only other French success on the continent, at least at club level. The national team of course lifted the 1998 World Cup on home soil before cementing their legacy as a great international side by winning Euro 2000. Those triumphs reinvigorated French interest in the beautiful game but instead of that acting as a springboard for the domestic league to flourish, Ligue 1 has largely floundered since.
Last summer’s European Championships, the first major tournament staged in France since ’98, arrived and spiked casual interest once more. This time however, could French football harness that enthusiasm and use it as a catalyst for progression?
When Barcelona, the most all-conquering club of this young century, visited Parc des Princes on Tuesday for the first-leg of their last-16 Champions League tie with Paris St Germain, it was expected that Lionel Messi and crew would ransack the side that has lifted the French title for the past four consecutive years.
How inaccurate that expectation proved to be.
PSG tore Luis Enrique’s eleven apart en-route to a 4-0 demolition that should truly have been more lopsided, if not for saves made by Marc-André ter Stegen, ironically the only Barcelona player to emerge with some credit from the hammering. A brace for man-of-the-match Angel Di Maria alongside goals from Julian Draxler and talisman Edison Cavani sealed victory, on a night where the Catalans were admittedly listless, but the Parisians were undoubtedly electric.
Barcelona have not been knocked out of the Champions League in the last 16 since defeat to Liverpool in 2007, but that’s a prospect that now seems a mere formality ahead of the second leg in three weeks time. Following the humiliating manner of their defeat and their struggles to this stage to keep pace with Real Madrid in La Liga, many sections of the Spanish media on Wednesday morning labelled this as the ‘end of an era’ for Barca.
But conversely, what if this is actually the beginning of an era for PSG? Or perhaps more expansively, the French league as a whole?
It would of course be entirely sensationalist to suggest that a solitary 4-0 victory might represent a changing of the guard from which PSG go on to dominate European football as Barcelona have. Les Rouge et Bleu finished second in their group behind Arsenal and would remain longer odds than Real or Bayern for the trophy should they reach the quarterfinals. What Tuesday night’s victory does indicate however, is that this is probably the best French club side since the Marseille of the early 90s. And it is not by accident.
Ever since Qatar Sports Investments completed a takeover of the club in 2011, to make PSG the wealthiest outfit in France and amongst the richest in the world, the Parisians have been on an upward trajectory. The 2012–13 season saw the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović, whose 30-goal tally propelled them to their first title in nineteen years under the guidance of new manager Carlo Ancelotti. A year later, Ancelotti’s successor Laurent Blanc led PSG to their first domestic treble, adding the Trophée des Champions and the Coupe de la Ligue to the Ligue 1 crown, before going one better in 2014-15 by defending all three titles and adding the Coupe de France for an unprecedented domestic quadruple.
In 2015-16, PSG won all four domestic trophies again, before Blanc left at the end of the season. In came current manager Unai Emery, the winner of three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla. Domestically this season has been much more testing, with the club sitting second in the league behind Monaco and two-points ahead of third-placed Nice. Should they safely navigate the second leg at Camp Nou however, PSG will have made the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the fifth consecutive season.
That’s a record that no club in Italy or England can match in recent years, though Chelsea and Manchester City featured in one semi-final each in that time and Juventus reached the final in 2015. Aside from the consensus ‘big three’ of this decade in Barca, Real and Bayern however, only Atletico Madrid can truly claim to have a better overall record in the Champions League over the past five years than PSG.
And at no point in those five years, has there a been a performance, or result, as groundbreaking as Tuesday night’s victory. The performance of January signing Julian Draxler in particular – who at times cut Barcelona to shreds – was also notable, given the speculation around the German moving to England after he impressed at the Euros last summer.
Draxler was heavily linked with moves to Arsenal and Liverpool but chose to stay with Wolfsburg until the right move came along, which at one time, for a player of his caliber to be linked with an English club only to then to sign for a French side, would have been unthinkable. A decade ago the Premier League had the biggest pulling power outside of the Spanish giants. That’s not the case any more. Furthermore, to consider that two of Paris St Germain’s biggest stars of recent years – Ibrahimović and David Luiz – are now two of this season’s standout players in the Premier League is telling. Ibra is 35 and Luiz will turn 30 in April, which when you consider that they each took the decision to move away from European contenders to clubs without Champions League football, logically suggests that they are slowing down. A decade ago, top players might play their peak years in England and move to France at the twilight of their careers.
As evidenced by the current league standings, depth within the French league is growing and quality is no longer exclusive to PSG. It appeared to be a blip when Monaco reached the Champions League quarter finals three seasons ago, but with their own form this season the table-toppers might be better positioned to build by attracting more talent in the summer. They also remain in the Champions League draw this year and while they will be underdogs in the last-16 against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the club from the independent state won their group pretty handily and twice beat Tottenham, who are currently neck-and-neck with City in the Premier League.
When you also consider the recent Dimitri Payet saga, with the West Ham midfielder disillusioned with life in England and forcing a move back to his homeland with Marseille, the fact that talented misfit Mario Ballotelli has rediscovered his level with surprise title-challengers Nice and that sleeping giants Lyon, currently fourth in the league, could at any point come back into the fold (even if resigned to losing superstar Alexander Lacazette) Ligue 1 currently has more depth than it has in years. It’s a sentiment that was recently echoed by PSG midfielder Marco Verratti – another star performer on Tuesday night – who challenged the perception that France’s top flight is weak in relation to the other leagues.
“To defend Ligue 1, you should look at the results in the Champions League,” Verrati said in December. “Monaco are first in their group, Lyon can still qualify and they are only fourth in the championship. I saw the Lyon matches against Juventus (dominant in Serie A) and they matched them.”
“Little by little, I think that Ligue 1 will succeed in keeping its young players,” the Italian international went on to say. “This is an important point for its development. Organisation in clubs (is) getting better and better. The stadiums, thanks to the Euros, are (also) of a very high quality.”
We are not yet witnessing a French football revolution and in the current landscape, it is likely that the Spanish giants along with Bayern Munich will continue to dominate the Champions League, whilst the Premier League will continue to be a global attraction. Ligue 1 is however closing the gap, spearheaded by the success of Paris Saint Germain, whose millions can only have a positive financial effect on the other French clubs in terms of attendances, television rights and attracting other investors.
Shoots of growth are visible and it’s not unthinkable that in years to come, the French league could finally find a place at the top table of the European elite.