FOX Soccer Exclusive
New French powers upset the balance
As the established powers in other major European leagues traded domestic titles amongst themselves over the past few years, French clubs adopted a refreshingly egalitarian approach to supremacy once Olympique Lyonnais relinquished its long-standing throne.
Paris Saint-Germain marked the sixth different champion in as many seasons when it won the title in May. The mixture of winners during that period -- the old guard in Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseille, the nouveau riche in Paris and the plucky outsiders from Lille and Montpellier -- reflected the relative balance within the competition, but PSG's 12-point margin at the top betrayed a shifting paradigm.
AS Monaco ascended to Ligue 1 during the summer to create a petrodollar -- and ruble -- fueled duopoly at the top of French football. The impending arms race inspired Monaco to ignore potential tax complications and splash the cash on Radamel Falcao, Geoffrey Kondogbia, João Moutinho and James Rodríguez. PSG responded with an Italian raid to add Edinson Cavani and Marquinhos to the title-winning outfit already led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva.
The focus of those raids added insult to injury for the rest of the overwhelmed division. Instead of plumping for domestic targets and spreading around those inflated fees to bolster their compatriots, the two powers -- with a trio of youthful exceptions in Lucas Digne (Lille to PSG), Nicolas Isimat-Mirin (Valenciennes to Monaco) and Anthony Martial (Lyon to Monaco) -- concentrated their spending externally. Olympique Marseille completed the two largest domestic transfers of the summer by signing French international Dimitri Payet and Ligue 1 young player of the year Florian Thauvin (after a protracted transfer wrangle and a strop by the player, of course) from Lille for a combined €25 million.
Most of the clubs outside the top three assessed the situation and shipped any valuable assets elsewhere in a bid to retrench. Lyon stripped as many high wage earners as possible from its books, though the failure to flog Bafétimbi Gomis still stings. Bordeaux and Montpellier dispatched Benoît Trémoulinas and Younès Belhanda to Dynamo Kiev. Saint-Étienne sent Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund and Josuha Guilavogui to Atlético Madrid. Other top-half clubs followed suit in a series of moves that ultimately strengthened the top three and weakened the league from top to bottom.
Edinson Cavani's move to Paris Saint-Germain was the biggest transfer move in French football history (Image: Charles Platiau/Reuters).
Buying and selling represents a method of survival for most French clubs (and at least Saint-Étienne spent a bit of money to obtain established replacements), but the effects now highlight the disparity between PSG, Monaco and everyone else. Theoretically, at least, the era of parity disintegrated once PSG came under Qatari ownership and ended when Monaco made its inevitable return to the top flight with the backing of Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Marseille -- a Champions League regular with significant resources -- represents the potential surprise package with Lyon content to reload with younger players in the face of overwhelming competition.
If there is a silver lining to the apparent shift, it is that the projected laggards have not given up entirely on making life difficult for the emerging twin powers in the early stages of the new campaign; PSG currently tops the table, but struggled off the gate; Monaco has already dropped two points in a scoreless stalemate against Toulouse at Stade Louis II. Furthermore, PSG drew with relegation contenders Ajaccio at the Parc des Princes and tied Montpellier away from home to slip behind their projected rivals before their midweek fixtures commence.
PSG's Champions League conundrum this season provides perhaps a glimmer of hope for insurgency over the next few years. Most of the focus for PSG -- and Monaco, presumably at the start of next season -- rests with continental success. Ligue 1 triumphs constitute the means to an end for owners plunging hundreds of millions of dollars into their playing sides each season. Rybolovlev and the Qatar Investment Authority expect their rewards to arrive in the Champions League sooner rather than later. And the list of priorities ensures comparatively weaker sides will appear in league play during those European excursions and expose the big sides to potential setbacks along the way.
The extent of the peril remains somewhat uncertain given the formidable squad depth in Paris and the forthcoming reinforcements in Monaco next year, but the prospect at least gives the rest of the league some hope as this duopoly takes hold. The possible challengers must sustain that optimism for as long as possible until Monaco and PSG -- barring the sale of either club or the emergence of a comparably-backed third party -- inevitably assume control for good, end this democratic period and move Ligue 1 into line with the rest of Europe's top leagues.