A FEELING has always persisted that French football takes the country’s dearly-held principle of egalite too far in continental sorties. How else to explain the fact that Scotland can boast three major European trophy successes while France has only two such triumphs?
Heck, even the one occasion a French team did claim the top club honour in cross-border competition is now largely discredited. Wide scale corruption was later exposed as a useful tactic deployed by chairman Bernard Tapie as his beloved Marseilles helped themselves to the first-ever Champions League in 1992-93.
Now, though, there might be the first signs that France, home to one of the big five leagues, could be in a position to shake off a reputation its teams have for being Camembert-soft touches in continental competition. For only the third time since the Champions League started allowing more than one entrant from high-ranking nations 18 seasons ago, the quarter-final first legs will feature two French teams: Paris-Saint Germain hosting Barcelona on Wednesday, with Monaco away to Juventus the previous night.
The principality’s pairing with the Italian behemoths has particular resonance for one Scottish footballing figure and known Francophile. Or rather, the only man who could be so termed: Celtic assistant manager John Collins.
Collins was a member of the Monaco side that faced Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League in April 1998. “They got lucky,” Collins jokes of the fact that Juventus prevailed 6-4 on aggregate, Monaco’s 3-2 win in the second leg futile following a 4-1 doing in Turin.
Collins believes that it will be more than fortune that will favour Juventus in the teams’ quarter-final confrontations, but sees no shame in the record of French clubs in European competition. One that would look a whole heap worse were it not for PSG’s Cup-Winners’ Cup success in 1996 – the Parisiens knocking out a Celtic side containing Collins at the second-round stage. French clubs have been particularly vulnerable in European finals. Between the European Cup/Champions League, Uefa Cup and, now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, they have been runners-up 11 times. No French team has ever reached the Uefa Cup final under its current nom de voyage the Europa League.
‘I always keep an eye on my old clubs and I go back there regularly’
“Monaco are punching above their weight this season,” Collins said of his old club, beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the 2004 Champions League final. “They have had a lot of breaks in this season’s Champions League. They are good defensively and work hard and with Paul Pogba, Juventus’ best player, out you never know.”
Collins believes he knows precisely why French clubs haven’t seemed naturals in the international domain. PSG might now run with one of the highest budgets in European football presently but lucrative wages were to be found beyond their borders for the top French footballers in previous eras.
“That meant all the best players left and French clubs didn’t hang on to them into their fine, ripe years,” Collins pointed out. “That was true of Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Deschamps, Thierry Henry and all these sort. They left very young so other countries had the benefit of them as mature players. It has changed now, but in years gone by all their best players were at Barcelonas and Real Madrids. If they had kept all those great players then it might have been different.”
Yet, the inability to prevent a talent drain afflicted the Netherlands as much as it did France. However, Dutch clubs were still players on the European scene with burgeoning young talents who they could not retain much beyond their breakthrough season. Collins points to one crucial difference between the two countries, though.
“What you have more so with Ajax is the top team in Holland, so all the top young players go to that club, while in France you have three or four top clubs,” he says. “All the good young players are separated where in Holland Ajax are top of the pyramid, when these players are 16, 17, 18, 19, up till 22, then they fly. In the last number of years you have maybe had six, seven or eight different champions in the French league. Rather than just two big clubs.”
Monaco have enjoyed a renaissance to be one of France’s top clubs once more. Backing from Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev paved the way for the club to return to the French top flight four years ago, though Collins says it has not been simply a matter of buying success.
The 47-year-old can speak with some authority on the subject of his old club because little more than a week ago he was back there to catch up with a few familiar faces. “We had a couple of days off so I went over there and watched them training,” Collins says. “I always keep an eye on my old clubs and I go back there regularly. My old assistant coach is in the scouting department now. One of my old team-mates is coaching the under-19s and the head of the academy is still there but the first team is totally different.
“The Russians brought the money in and, with the likes of Jorge Mendes involved, they signed a lot of Portuguese, Ricardo Carvalho, Joao Moutinho and one or two others [with James Rodrigues, Falcao and Dimitar Berbatov also signing last season]. They spent a lot of money but there were cutbacks last year when Financial Fair Play kicked in, so they had to cut the wage bill.
“I don’t know if I reminisce about my time there, but they were good memories. When it comes to semi-finals and quarter-finals, you always look back a little bit. It is hard for Monaco, they are just a small club in Champions League terms. They have punched above their weight over the years, in getting to semi-finals and quarter-finals.” Monaco might be considered exceptions among French league teams, then.