Ligue 1 season preview: PSG’s Qatari money helps propel French football back into the big time

Qatari big-money investment in Paris Saint-Germain started a journey back to major relevance in France, writes Ian Hawkey.
Players such as Monaco's Italian/Egyptian forward Stephan El Shaarawy are one of the reasons France's Ligue 1 can be considered must-see for football fans. VALERY HACHE / AFP
Players such as Monaco's Italian/Egyptian forward Stephan El Shaarawy are one of the reasons France's Ligue 1 can be considered must-see for football fans. VALERY HACHE / AFP

No major league in Europe has had its landscape altered as much as France’s in the past five years.

In early 2011, Ligue 1 was wondering if it even deserved to be categorised as one of the elite European divisions, its club budgets seeming so dwarfed by those of Spain’s big two, by the Premier League, the Bundesliga and the top of Serie A.

With the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by Qatari investors, France had a sudden, startling presence among the continent’s heavyweights, a financial muscle that, as in each of the past four summers, has been flexed again this August with the purchase for more than €60 million (Dh240m) of Angel di Maria from Manchester United.

Nowhere in Europe has the physical landscape of a football culture changed so dramatically as in France, either.

New stadiums are on display throughout Ligue 1 and the likes of Lyon, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice may have but a fraction of PSG’s transfer spending power, but they certainly look the part of ambitious, go-getting institutions.

Bordeaux, Lille and Nice are all in smart new homes, and Lyon are preparing to move into theirs this season that begins ­on Friday night.

The new arenas are a pointer to why this is a big year for French football.

Once the Ligue 1 campaign is over, the continent’s finest international players will arrive in France, for the European Championship, staged across the new venues and some polished up older ones. Hosts France have a shot at winning the trophy.

Ligue 1, PSG apart, is still more used to seeing its finest international footballers depart in June and July as they chase higher wages and more prestigious leagues.

Some of the clubs who hope to make a sustained challenge to PSG’s hold on a title they have won the past three years on the trot may worry they are weakened by the loss of senior men.

Marseille have said au revoir to Dmitri Payet and Andre Ayew, both gone to mid-ranking Premier League clubs, West Ham United and Swansea City. Monaco’s habit of selling off young starlets means they are without Geoffrey Kondogbia – to Inter Milan – and Yannick Carrasco, who has joined Atletico Madrid.

One intrigue, with four weeks to run until the close of the transfer window, is what happens to Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon’s striker and leading scorer in the 2014/15 campaign.

PSG admire him, as do some leading English clubs, and the Paris juggernaut would not only be even more formidable for his acquisition but Lyon, runners-up last term, would look far less convincing rivals without him.

PSG are hardly short-staffed up front, with Edinson Cavani still on the roster, Zlatan Ibrahimovic still only flirting with AC Milan’s interest in him, but they are covetous of Lacazette.

They need only look over the border at the Bundesliga to know that nothing maintains a club’s long-term grip on the summit of the domestic hierarchy like pinching away the next best team’s star man. Since Bayern Munich took Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund, they have opened up a huge gap between the two clubs.

Yet the France of a financially dominant PSG is not like Germany; Ligue 1 not a one-horse race by November.

Though PSG have finished up with comfortable leads over their closest pursuers in 2013, 2014, and 2015, there has been suspense in all of those races.

At the winter-break stage in all three of the campaigns the PSG advantage was narrow, or non-existent: Last Christmas, PSG trailed both Marseille and Lyon in the table and coach Laurent Blanc’s future in charge looked tenuous.

His position would be strengthened by one match above all, the second leg of the Uefa Champions League last-16 tie at Chelsea, when PSG emerged, on away goals, having had Ibrahimovic sent off in the first half.

It was to the next phase of PSG’s development Di Maria referred to ahead of his medical with the club last week: “I want to help this club reach the later stages of the Champions League,” said the Argentine. “They broke the barrier of the quarter-finals last season and I want to help them go farther.”

Monaco broke that last-16 ceiling in the European Cup, too, and although the club of the Principality are no longer the extravagant spenders of two years ago, their new business model is fascinating: a high turnover, and an emphasis on youth and development, much like Monaco had the last time France prepared for hosting a major tournament, the World Cup of 1998.

Back then, several Monaco graduates – Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit among them – won that World Cup.

Lyon, too, have a rich seam of native French talent, epitomised by the potential of Nabil Fekir. Despite a ragged set of pre-season results, they still look the best equipped to push PSG.

Marseille will hope to have a longer say in the outcome than they did in 2014/15 with Marcelo Bielsa, the dogmatic, eccentric coach embarking on his second season in charge there.

No league with him in the cast, or Hatem Ben Arfa, looking to resurrect his career at Nice, on the stage, or Ibrahimovic lording it, can be described as second rate for entertainment.

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Published: August 6, 2015 04:00 AM

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