The changing faces of Ligue 1
Even the most distracted observer of French football would have wondered over the past 12 months if the land of Les Bleus and Ligue 1 has been suffering an unusually profound identity crisis.
Scars left by a disastrous World Cup in South Africa had seemed to be healing, as the national team, under Laurent Blanc, the new coach, strung together an impressive runs of victories.
Then, in April, the scandal broke around so-called quotas being proposed for players fast-tracked through the French development system according to their backgrounds. Blanc himself appearing to demand a policy of talent-seeking with an ethnic dimension.
Behind the controversy was an identity issue. Blanc had to apologise for causing offence with some of his comments.
Ligue 1 coaches, meanwhile, have for a while bemoaned that most talented French footballers aspire to leave, to migrate for the higher salaries and lower income taxes at clubs in Spain, England, Italy and Germany.
Now one club has gained a budget to reverse that pattern. Yet even Paris Saint-Germain's new wealth provokes tut-tutting about a loss of identity, notably from Michel Platini. "Five years ago, I said I was not a fan of Americans investing in English football," the former France captain and current Uefa president told Jeune Afrique. "I'm not going to say something different now that Qataris have arrived at PSG.
"What does it bring to a club if, say, they have an Italian head coach, a Brazilian sports director and German players? Where's the link with Paris? It's globalisation, you cannot stop it, but what happens when the Qataris leave?"
As the new campaign kicks off today, the urgent questions are not those posed by Platini, even if the talk is mostly of transformed PSG. The arrival of Qatar Sports Investments, as 70 per cent stakeholders in the club has altered the landscape. France's top-flight, by most indices about the fifth most competitive domestic competition in Europe, has begun to define itself as something mightier.
PSG's capture of Javier Pastore, the 22-year-old Argentine playmaker, signed for some €43 million (Dh223.7m) from Palermo, smashed spending records in French football and peeved Chelsea, who had wanted Pastore. PSG also confidently gazumped Valencia, of Spain, in hiring striker Kevin Gameiro, for some €11m.
Gameiro will be among as many as six newcomers in the PSG line-up tonight when the enriched Parisiens take on Gameiro's former club, Lorient, themselves an example of the sort of careful, lower-budget management that has made Ligue 1 one of the more open leagues of recent seasons.
Lille, the fourth different champion in four years, cleverly nurtured a group of fine young players to last season's title; and Rennes were keeping pace with them until the late spring. For the clubs with broader fan bases, such as Marseille, Lyon and PSG, such provincial challengers routinely make life uncomfortable. Bordeaux brought to an end Lyons' seven-year run of consecutive titles in 2008; Lille prevented Marseille defending their 2009 crown.
Ligue 1 has not known a genuinely sustained joust between Marseille and PSG for the title since the first half of the 1990s. The expectation in Provence is that this season will reignite the most passionate rivalry in French club football. Where PSG have been prodigal in their spending, Marseille, who begin their season at home to Sochaux, have seemed miserly.
They have fortified the squad with the central defender Nicolas Nkoulou from relegated Monaco and the holding midfielder Alou Diarra from Bordeaux, but their overall outgoings amount to a little more than €11m. They talk of answering PSG's revolution with stability, though it grates on Didier Deschamps, Marseille's head coach, to see Paris portrayed as such a desirable destination for signings.
As for the other potential champions, Lyon, who travel to Nice tonight, are under a new head coach, Remi Garde, and still searching for the dominance they once held. Lille, whose defence begins at Nancy, have held on to the gifted Eden Hazard, but lost important contributors to last season's double: Gervinho to Arsenal, Adil Rami to Valencia and Yohan Cabaye to Newcastle United.
With the Champions League to preoccupy them, a smallish squad may seem stretched. Lyon and Marseille are also involved in that tournament. PSG, with their broad new squad, are not. Domestically, the club from capital seem to hold all the aces.
Ajaccio v Toulouse 11pm
Nancy v Lille 11pm
Brest v Evian 11pm
Caen v Valenciennes 11pm
Marseille v Sochaux 11pm
Montpellier v Auxerre 11pm
Nice v Lyon 11pm
PSG v Lorient 11pm
Dijon v Rennes 7pm
Bordeaux v St Etienne 11pm
Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM