After dropping as low as 25th place in the FIFA world rankings in 2015, France’s national football team returned to the top ten the following year and have one of the best squads in the world. So why is Ligue 1 looked upon so poorly by other nations?
Last season, viewers of Europe’s elite were treated to a Monaco side that brought a highly entertaining style of football to the Champions League providing a hyper offensive team that often banked on outscoring their opponents made for brilliant watching.
On their way to the semi-finals of the competition, Monaco overcame Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund in the knockout rounds as well as beating Tottenham Hotspur in the group stages home and away.
They fell eventually to Juventus, but Europe took note of the success.
Paris Saint-Germain may have been knocked out in the famous “Remontada” against Barcelona, although it’s easy to forget that the Parisians swept Barcelona aside 3-0 at the Parc des Princes.
Olympique Lyonnais also reached the semi-finals of the Europa League last season, losing to Ajax at the penultimate hurdle.
All in all, the French complement acquitted themselves quite well in continental competition last season.
In terms of the footballers themselves, the three last Premier League players of the season (Ngolo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez and Eden Hazard) came directly from the French league.
It’s clear that Ligue 1 has a great talent pool, but the real problem is that the clubs in France can’t hold onto their talent.
Barring PSG (who have no monetary issues) talented players are often looking for moves away from France to kickstart a career with a bigger European team.
Even Monaco, who can now be considered among Europe’s elite, seem prone their best talent leaving.
This inability to hold on to or attract top talent has been a real issue for the French league.
When young players look to move abroad after one good season, the public’s interest will naturally follow.
Ousmane Dembélé, a youth product of Rennes, signed for Barcelona this summer and became the second most expensive player of all time in the process.
With such high profile players leaving, interest in following their careers in other European leagues will only increase, leaving France’s domestic competition by the wayside.
For Ligue 1 to generate interest, they need more marquee signings. This summer, things did improve in that regard, with Neymar leaving Barcelona for PSG and Keita Baldé, the talented Senegalese, moving from Lazio to Monaco.
Kylian Mbappé also stayed in France, moving between the two top clubs.
The problem that is arising with this is that only two clubs seem to be in a strong enough financial position to do so.
Save for Monaco and PSG, no other clubs have the funds to allow them to keep their best talents.
For Ligue 1 and its overall quality to improve, ultimately more investment is needed in the other clubs.
Frank McCourt, an American sports investor, purchased Olympique de Marseille in 2016 and invested over €100m in under a year solely on transfer fees.
This level of investment is what is needed to begin Marseille’s return to the top of French football, ad make it a league where multiple clubs can challenge for the title.
However, just one more club joining the elite is not enough to suffice. Other teams will need to have stronger finances to prevent their best players leaving and allow them to bring in talent from outside of France.
Clubs with rich history such as Saint Etienne could be potential targets for investors.
The real disadvantage that France has is that there is not as rich a domestic footballing history as the rest of Europe; Marseille is the only French club to have won the European Cup.
Spanish teams have won the competition 17 times, English and Italian teams have it 12 times each and German teams seven times.
Clubs with a famous history naturally have stronger fan bases globally, which makes them more attractive to investors who look at global brands.
Another issue affecting interest in the league as a whole is that apart from the top two or three teams, French clubs are considered (correctly) to be inferior in quality to other leagues.
There are internationally respected players in mid table in the Premier League, such as Javier Hernández at West Ham, whereas there are no similar skilled players in the lower reaches of Ligue 1.
As mentioned previously, this is influenced by the inability to keep hold of quality players due in part to weaker finances; many of Ligue 1’s best talent start at the lesser clubs in the division and are snapped up by larger teams.
There are low attendance figures as a result. The average attendance in Ligue 1 was a little under 21,000 last season, less than the 2. Bundesliga (Germany’s second division) and a little over half the Bundesliga itself (41,500). Lower ticket gates also make the clubs less appealing to foreign investment.
This produces a vicious cycle.
The lack of potential gain for investors means that they are not very interested, and this lack of capital means that fans are left disappointed when their best players leave year after year.
Ultimately, the solution for improving the reputation of the league as a whole is the performance of its clubs on a European level.
Better performances in Europe could lead to an improvement in the league’s seeding with UEFA, granting it more teams playing in continental competition.
This improvement in the teams needs to come from a higher level of investment from the outside. If rich owners such as those of PSG purchase more clubs in Ligue 1, the future could be bright.
It is clear that these clubs produce the talent which goes on to play a large part in world football.
With strong finances and economic backing in the coming years, Ligue 1 can hold onto its best talent and become a higher quality, more respected European league.