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PSG changing pace for France's powers

Javier Pastore (AP Photo/David Vincent)
Beating Chelsea for Javier Pastore, PSG scored a coup for Ligue 1.
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Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a regular contributor to FOXSoccer.com, covering Europe and the UEFA Champions League. He is also the author of All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League.

 
   
 

Last month Paris Saint-Germain’s owner, Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), invited CNN to the French capital to examine how its first season in charge of the club is unfolding. The club’s young president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, played welcoming host to reporter Pedro Pinto.

Rise of soccer's Robber Barons?


Answer all of competition's questions before the players take the field – eliminate doubt, drama, surprise and upset - and you snap the backbone of our love affair with sport. That remote possibility explains the passion we see as fans confront the role of money in professional soccer, in which most new and huge cash injections are broadly met with antagonism.

Whereas most deride the direction the sport is taking, it may be an exaggeration to say that money is becoming a more powerful factor than ever before. It is, however, difficult to imagine a time when dollars, pounds, and euro played a more interesting role than now.

Part of that interest is borne by the way new money has come into the sport. While spending seems to be up at all levels of the game, our imaginations are drawn to a number of clubs – the Manchester Citys, PSGs, and Anzhis – who are threatening to redefine their leagues' power structures.

In some places, title races have already been swayed. On other circuits, prospects for change require longer views. Expression like the "Big Four" and "Big Two" have become embedded into the lexicon, but new powers are now emerging which are threatening to end such predictability.

This week, FOX Soccer looks at five of those leagues - five of the soccer world's new, would-be titans, asking how each is influencing their league's established powers. Invariably entangled in each story are our own perceptions. If these clubs continue to change their leagues, should they be looked upon as revolutionaries? Or will they be seen as usurpers, destined to be seen in the same light as Chelsea's Abramovich era?

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Richard Farley
Editor, FOX Soccer

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In some quarters the short film was derided as a puff-piece, but the message was clear. Paris Saint-Germain is big news, and it is on its way up. The club’s new leadership is rolling out the mother of all charm offensives to facilitate the process.

Herein lies the real challenge laid down by PSG’s new era to its domestic counterparts. The huge budget at the disposal of sporting director Leonardo is of course a big advantage, but big bucks are no guarantee of success in France, as Olympique Lyonnais’ profligacy of recent years has proved. What QSI really brings to the table is a global perspective that France has always lacked.

Al-Khelaifi was keen to point out in the interview how PSG had already become an international player. “Players now approach us to come to Paris Saint-Germain,” he told Pinto. “In the beginning we were a little bit concerned that they wouldn’t come. But no player that we approached said no to us.”

PSG do, of course, have a certain geographical pull, something that played a key part in attracting QSI to invest. “Paris is a great city,” Al-Khelaifi continued, “and really Paris deserves to have a great club on the world (stage). Long-term, our strategy is to make Paris Saint-Germain one of the biggest in the world. ”

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The impetus is now greater than ever on Ligue 1’s two genuine behemoths of recent times to up their respective games. For too long, Lyon and Olympique de Marseille have frittered huge sums away in attempting to maintain some sort of prestige, but with no tangible endgame in sight.

Facing their own financial challenges, the pair has welcomed QSI’s arrival as a chance to raise the international profile of the French game. “It’s an incredible opportunity,” Marseille president Vincent Labrune said in a recent interview with So Foot. “The Qataris in Paris is like Real Madrid playing in the French championship. Foreign stars will come to Ligue 1, it’s going to bring visibility, gate receipts, TV rights and more.”

The boost is welcome. Labrune, brought in as president by club owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus last summer after the gaffe-prone Jean-Claude Dassier was fired, has a very particular background – in financial crisis management. Mrs. Louis-Dreyfus has continued to fund OM in memory of her late husband Robert, who died in July 2009 and had invested heavily to return the club to the summit of the French game. Yet she made clear in an October meeting with the club’s staff that there was no bottomless pit of cash, and that they would all have to “take responsibility”.

Retrenchment is the name of the game. “We’ve learned to say no,” said Labrune. The same is true at Lyon, where coach Remi Garde is rebuilding, relying heavily on products of the club’s acclaimed youth academy.

Lyon could be described as French soccer’s Icarus. Buoyed by an unprecedented run of success at the start of the 21st century, the club floated itself on the stock exchange in January 2007. Striving to reach the next level after three successive Champions League quarterfinal finishes in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the Soccernomics-style model (which saw the club make big profits on players such as Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Mahamadou Diarra) was abandoned.

Under the three-season reign of coach Claude Puel, Lyon spent an astronomical €155 million ($202 million) on transfers – and won nothing. As of May 2011, shares in OL Groupe were worth precisely one quarter of the €24 ($31) for which they were initially put on the market.

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The club’s long-serving president, Jean-Michel Aulas, is no billionaire. He is from the same mold as Deportivo La Coruña’s Augusto César Lendoiro, who made his own provincial also-ran into a European big-hitter by being extremely persuasive in getting others to part with their cash. He did so to spectacular effect towards the end of the 1990s, attracting investment from movie magnate Pathé which enabled crucial signings, including the €15 million ($20 million) arrival of Sonny Anderson from Barcelona.

Labrune’s own view on the future is a little contradictory. On the one hand, he talks of his background as a non-local being an advantage – “I don’t think it’s possible to run the club if you’re from Marseille. Marseille (i.e. the city) is a village and OM is a multinational, not a village club.” On the other, he is taken in by the club’s history. “In France, there’s one big club, not two – and that’s OM.”

Today, the clubs are competing with PSG for international – not just domestic – exposure, and parochialism will simply not fly. Aulas knows it. In recent months, he has made little secret of the fact that he is openly courting investment from the Far East. Before and after February’s home match with PSG, in an interview with Le Figaro and live on Canal+, the president again brought up the subject.

A two-day visit to Abu Dhabi, in Saudi Arabia, is planned for this week. “I’m hoping to meet the economic and political leaders of the country,” Aulas said. A full takeover, as with PSG, is not on the table - “Olympique Lyonnais has private shareholders who wish to stay and wish to develop,” Aulas confirmed, but Lyon recognizes the need to look further afield in the need to reprise the success of its previous financial model.

It’s always difficult to know how seriously to take Aulas. He is well-known as a provocateur, but in saying this he knew ears would prick up, as these are strange times. Desperate moments call for desperate measures. There is already a certain level of acquiesce there; as Canal+ pundit Pierre Menès recently pointed out, Lyon and Marseille share the same shirt sponsor, online betting company BetClic.

Even if Aulas is willing to find any which way to innovate, Marseille doesn’t feel the same. “I think he was trying to be funny,” Labrune told So Foot. “There’s no connection between Lyon and Marseille, and there never will be. I’m telling you; Olympique de Marseille doesn’t need anyone.”

The improvements connected to the European Championship in 2016 will be a fillip. “OM is in the process of building a magnificent stadium,” Aulas told media recently. “Lyon is going to build one too (with delivery expected in 2014 – ed.). It’s through these structures that we’ll eventually be able to rival them and also by the fact there will be the financial fair play rules.”

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Ostensibly, this is where Lille could be ahead of the game. 2011’s national champion will move into its state-of-the-art Grand Stade Lille Métropole in late summer, although it doesn’t have the grassroots support (local rival Lens, in Ligue 2, is traditionally a bigger club) or the budget to definitively break away.

Yet there is one more serious blip on the horizon for PSG’s competitors; this spring’s presidential election, with the socialist candidate, François Hollande, proposing a 75 percent tax on those earning more than €1 million ($1.3 million) annually. PSG’s Christophe Jallet spoke for many when he turned his nose up at the idea of “working for nothing,” with widespread fears in the French game that there would be a mass exodus, and prospective new talent will choose to play elsewhere. “If I don’t have any spectators coming,” Lille president Michel Seydoux told Le Parisien, “I won’t even be able to pay the rental on the new stadium.”

With a European Super League not an immediate prospect, this would hurt PSG as much as anybody. It needs domestic competition. Yet in both sporting and political terms, France has some deeply entrenched views on how things should work, which will be hard to dilute.

Neither of the two factors of history or infrastructure alone suffice to rule in France; a combination of the two is necessary. For the moment, it seems as if perhaps only PSG’s new leadership has grasped that. If Ligue 1 really is to increase its watchability and worth, it may be that QSI has to drag it upwards - kicking and screaming.

Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.

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