Champions League: Long wait for French revolution

French clubs have won only two European trophies, with Marseille lifting the Champions League in 1993. Picture: Getty
French clubs have won only two European trophies, with Marseille lifting the Champions League in 1993. Picture: Getty
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Nouveau riche clubs PSG and Monaco aiming to put an end to country’s poor record in Europe

FOR a country that invented the European Cup, hosted its inaugural final and produced the runners-up in two of its first four years, France has a remarkably poor record in the continent’s most prestigious club competition. When Paris Saint-German pitch up at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday night for the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie against Chelsea, their aim will be to rectify one of the great anomalies of European football.

Since it was first played for in season 1955-56 – the brainchild of two L’Equipe journalists – the trophy has been lifted by only one French club. That was in 1993, when Marseille’s success, after pipping Rangers in the group stage, was tainted by a corruption scandal. Neither has the nation been much cop in Europe’s other club competitions. Its only success in the Cup-Winners’ Cup was in 1996, when PSG beat Rapid Vienna. A French club has never won the Europa League, nor indeed either of its predecessors, the UEFA Cup and the Fairs Cup.

Guillaume Beuzelin, the French midfielder who played for Le Havre and Beauvais before joining Hibernian in 2004, admits that it does not reflect well on his homeland. “It’s quite embarrassing to be honest. When you see Scotland has won three – Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen – two major trophies is very poor for a country of our size.”

PSG, transformed in recent years by Qatari money, are keen to bridge that gap. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva and the rest of Laurent Blanc’s expensively-assembled squad are hellbent on ending a history of underachievement that can be attributed largely to the way French football has been set up.

Traditionally, the growth of its biggest clubs has been restricted by state influence, the object of which is to ensure that resources are evenly spread. This has been good for domestic competition, as well as youth development, but it has also limited commercial opportunities.

Take, for instance, the DNCG (National Directorate of Management Control), created by the French government in 1990. Set up in response to financial irregularities in the game, it requires football clubs to submit detailed accounts and budgetary plans on an annual basis. Its power has diminished somewhat in recent years, but the overall effect has been to curtail football’s worst excesses. While PSG and Monaco have the billionaire backers to service their debt, most have learned to pursue their ambition by alternative means. Hence the willingness of Monaco, under Arsene Wenger more than 20 years ago, to identify and nurture the relatively unknown talents of Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, David Trezeguet and Lilian Thuram, all of them future World Cup winners. It also explains the acclaimed youth academy that underpinned Lyon’s domination of the noughties.

The system gives French football a healthy foundation but the top clubs gain less from it than the national side. “We can produce talented players, no doubt about it, but after one or two seasons, they go abroad,” says Beuzelin, now a youth coach with Hibs. “That has been the case for a long, long while now.”

The French League has not been attractive enough. With its faded stadia, and relatively modest crowds, it has lacked the glamour of the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga. Limited television revenues reflect that reality which, in turn, perpetuates the problem. The country does not sell itself well abroad. Beuzelin, for instance, is frustrated when he hears that French clubs select only their reserve players for Europa League matches. “I find that annoying because other countries like Portugal play their main team and get success. I don’t know who we are to disrespect this competition. When I was young, the French league was the fourth or fifth best in Europe. Now, Portugal and the Russian leagues are catching up.”

Tax rates are another issue. When the government announced plans last year to introduce a 75 per cent supertax on the mega rich, the country’s football clubs threatened to strike in protest. Their union argued that payroll taxes paid by French clubs were already the highest in Europe and that players’ wages cost a third more than in Germany, England, Spain or Italy. “We’re talking about the death of French football,” said Jean-Pierre Louvel, president of the Union of Professional Football Clubs in France. Monaco, though, are based in a tax haven with no such worries. When they reached the Champions League final in 2004, their exemption was said to have saved them ¤8 million (£6.6m). When the league demanded that they relocate, they point-blank refused, agreeing instead to pay ¤50m (£41m) in compensation. The principality’s status causes resentment among rival clubs, many of whom could do with a financial break. Not only are they constrained by a television deal that is dwarfed by its equivalent in England, they watch in envy as Monaco are bankrolled by Dmitry Rybolovlev, one of the world’s richest men. Since acquiring a 66 per cent stake in the club two years ago, the fertiliser tycoon has dug deep to pull off a series of spectacular signings, including Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez.

Not that PSG are spending any less. They, in fact, are investing so heavily that moral questions are being asked. Last week, it was revealed that FIFA had huge concerns about the club’s ¤220m-a-year (£182m) sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority. If they are deemed to have broken the governing body’s fair play rules, possible punishments include a ban from European competition.

It will be fascinating to see how France, and indeed European football, responds to the big-spending top-two clubs in Ligue 1. PSG and Monaco have the economic muscle to strangle domestic competition, but also the ability to raise the league’s global profile, along with its bargaining power in TV negotiations and, in turn, the money filtered down to other clubs.

Monaco, promoted only last summer, did not play in this season’s Champions League but they will be a force in the years ahead. PSG, knocked out by Barcelona’s away goals in the quarter-finals 12 months ago, head into the Chelsea match on the back of nine consecutive wins in all competitions. Venues all over the country are being upgraded for the Euro 2016 finals, giving many clubs the opportunity to increase their earning potential. If they are allowed the freedom to do so, one of these clubs, one of these days, will give France its third major European trophy.

On Wednesday, Beuzelin will be watching with interest. “Jose Mourinho is such a good tactician, and Chelsea are set up well to hurt people on the counter attack, but Paris are very good at keeping the ball,” he says. “They are much, much stronger than Arsenal. I hope for Paris.”

Tuesday 7.45pm

Barcelona v Atletico Madrid Sky Sports 1

Manchester United v Bayern Munich STV

Wednesday 7.45pm

Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea Sky Sports 1

Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund Sky 1 & Sky Sports 4