How French soccer fell apart during the coronavirus crisis

Ligue 1 is Europe’s only major league to cancel its season. But who decided, and why?

Olympique Lyonnais players take part in a training session at Groupama Stadium in Décines-Charpieu as last Wednesday as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

Olympique Lyonnais players take part in a training session at Groupama Stadium in Décines-Charpieu as last Wednesday as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

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Finally, it seemed, the battle was over. After a month of uncertainty and in-fighting and turmoil, French soccer at last had closure. The highest administrative court in the country, the Conseil d’État, had made its ruling: The soccer season was finished.

Except that it wasn’t. While the court ruled that the final standings for France’s top two divisions would stand, it had blocked the relegation of the two clubs that had finished at the bottom of Ligue 1, Amiens and Toulouse, and commanded the sport’s authorities to explore alternative solutions. They have until June 30th to find one.

And then, a few hours later, Olympique Lyonnais – the club which had most ardently opposed the curtailment of the season – published a statement briefly taking note of the court’s decision and then outlining why, precisely, it was wrong. Lyon’s bombastic, belligerent president, Jean-Michel Aulas, committed his club to continuing “its substantive action before the Conseil d’État.”

What nobody in France can quite explain is how, exactly, it came to this. On April 28th, as the spreading coronavirus pandemic was causing uncertainty for sports leagues around the world, France was the only one of Europe’s major leagues to have a degree of clarity. The country’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, had stood before parliament and declared – to the surprise of most of France’s clubs – that the 2019-20 season was over.

I can say that, on behalf of the Ligue 1 clubs, there was no consultation with us

Elsewhere in Europe, leagues pressed on with ideas about how to resume play, but it seemed a distant prospect, rooted more in hope than expectation. The pandemic was raging. The road ahead was filled with obstacles.

France, at least, had made a call. “It was the right decision for the moment,” said Stéphane Saint-Raymond, the communications director at UNFP, the French players’ union.

Still alone

Six weeks later, France is still alone. Germany’s Bundesliga returned to the field a month ago. In Spain, La Liga resumed on Thursday night. Italy and England will follow suit in the next few days. All French soccer can do, now, is try to pick through the causes and consequences of its decision. French clubs have been left to wonder what the league will look like next season, how deep the financial damage will run. There is a more pressing question, though: why France took this path, and who – exactly – was responsible for choosing it.

For the owners of France’s teams, the answer to the latter is clear: The decision was imposed from on high. “Nobody votes to scuttle their own ship,” said Bernard Caïazzo, the president of Saint-Étienne, one of the teams that, in theory, benefited from the season’s abrupt end. One of France’s most storied clubs, Saint-Étienne had been hovering just above the relegation zone when the season was halted.

“Nobody in soccer wanted to hurt our own economy,” he said. “I can say that, on behalf of the Ligue 1 clubs, there was no consultation with us.”

The politicians remember it slightly differently. “The decisions are taken by the authorities in question,” Roxana Maracineanu, France’s sports minister, said last month, referring to the LFP, the body that governs French soccer’s top two tiers.

The testimony of Philippe runs along the same lines. “It does not belong to me to pronounce on the decisions of leagues and federations,” he said a few hours after delivering the statement declaring the soccer season to be over.

France’s clubs submitted a detailed dossier outlining the protocols for their return to training

“It has been a ping-pong game between the league and government,” said Ahmet Schaefer, the owner of the second-division club Clermont Foot. “The government saying the league stopped the season, and the league saying to the government, ‘You told me to do so.’ I have never seen that.”

The problem, for many, is that – in contrast to almost every other major European league – there is no firewall between the soccer authorities and the government in France. The LFP ultimately answers to the French soccer federation, which is itself controlled by the sports ministry.

“Whether we like it or not, French sports is ruled by the government,” said Xavier Thuilot, Saint-Étienne’s general manager. “So when the prime minister says, ‘the championships won’t resume,’ it’s not a piece of advice. It’s an order.”

Overhaul

For his boss, Caïazzo, the events of the last few weeks have proved that French soccer needs a structural overhaul. It must, he said, seek to emulate the model of England’s Premier League, where the clubs are effectively shareholders in a private enterprise. “This crisis has shown that the way French soccer is organised doesn’t work anymore,” he said.

Not long before Philippe made his announcement, France’s clubs were busily preparing to restart. What they didn’t know was that the political tide had turned.

France’s clubs submitted a detailed dossier to the government, outlining the protocols for their return to training, on April 20th. The document concluded that, if the clubs could return to training by May 11th, they would be able to play again in mid-June and finish the season before an August cut-off date suggested by Uefa, European soccer’s governing body.

“It was pretty clear for everyone that we would resume in mid-June and finish six or seven weeks later,” said Schaefer, though other executives believe that the clubs lacked flexibility. French soccer has a new television contract, with the Spanish broadcaster Mediapro, that was set to start this summer; it is worth a record €1.15 billion a season, and the clubs wanted to finish this season as soon as possible so as not to jeopardise it.

Around the same time, though, the powerful players’ union was conducting two pieces of research. In one, it commissioned a sports economist to assess the potential cost of not resuming the season. The study found a direct impact of $435 million (€386 million), with a top end that could rise as high as $800 million (€710 million). Part of that, though, might be offset by a state-backed loan and the increase in broadcast income from the new rights deal.

Survey

The second was a survey of the union’s members, asking how they felt about a restart. About 80 per cent said they did not wish to play as the pandemic tore through France. “We did not agree to play again without total security,” said Saint-Raymond, the union’s communications director. “We are not more important than the rest of the population,” he added.

The union lobbied the French soccer federation to abandon the campaign to return – a significant move, Saint-Raymond said – and, a few days later, the union’s co-president, Sylvain Kastendeuch, published an op-ed in Le Monde making that view public.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, had consulted with a number of clubs, as well as the LFP and the French federation, throughout the shutdown. (He had also reached out to contemporaries such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Le Parisien reported, perhaps in the hope that France’s decision would start a domino effect, and provide some political cover.)

There was already substantial unease in government at the idea of players having access to virus tests at a time when frontline workers and the general public did not; the pandemic was still at its peak, and French citizens could not even walk the streets without written permission. Kastendeuch’s intervention swayed the decision.

To some, his call sent precisely the opposite of the desired message. “If everyone goes back to work and is exposed to the virus, and soccer is still at home, we are underlining that it is isolated from society, that players are protected,” Clermont’s Schaefer said.

French soccer is at a complete standstill. We are going to be less competitive than our European neighbours

Two days after Philippe’s announcement, France’s shellshocked clubs held a video conference to discuss their next step, but by that stage they had lost what little power they had. The league had formed a panel of three executives to negotiate what money was still owed for the current broadcast agreements, believed to be in the region of $273 million (€242 million). But both rights holders, Canal Plus and beIN Sports, had immediately made clear they believed their commitments were over.

The players did not want to play; the government did not want the league to resume; the broadcasters had little interest in showing it if it did. The only way to stem the losses was to prioritise the new Mediapro contract. Aulas and Lyon, worried about missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 20 years, wanted to keep fighting. So, too, did Amiens and Toulouse, who didn’t contest the ending of the season but who didn’t want to be relegated, either. For the vast majority, though, there was no way out. The season was over. Paris Saint-Germain was declared champion.

Debate

Why no other major league followed France’s lead is open to debate. To some, though, the reason it has not reversed course could be found in a survey published last month by the magazine So Foot: only 22 per cent of people who regularly watch Ligue 1 games, the survey found, actively miss the competition.

“We are maybe not a soccer nation in the same way as Italy or Spain is,” one Ligue 1 executive said. “It explains why there has been no public outcry.”

Within soccer, too, there is something of a split as to how enduring the effects of the decision might be. A government loan of €225 million to cover the lost revenue from the final tranche of this year’s television payments, as well as offering to reduce clubs’ tax burden, may help. Still, even PSG, the country’s richest club, estimates it might lose €100 million because of the decision to go dark.

“No business can run without resources for six months,” said Caïazzo, the Saint-Étienne president. “French soccer is at a complete standstill. We are going to be less competitive than our European neighbours, no doubt.”

What is not yet clear is what the indirect cost will be. Much of French soccer is traditionally financed by selling players to richer clubs in England, Spain and Germany. The Premier League has paid French clubs more than €1 billion for players in the last five years alone.

For this reason, one French executive noted, what happens to the English season sometimes matters more to French clubs than what happens to the French campaign. Now, one study has estimated that player revenues – exports that can be worth as much as €800 million to French clubs in a single summer – may drop by almost a third this year.

For teams such as Lille, Marseille and Lyon, whose finances rely on selling players, that could provide a hammer blow. Aulas, the Lyon president, suggested French soccer might feel the effects of the decision to end the season early, to take its players out of the shop window before a critical summer, for “five or 10 years”.

“Losers are always wrong,” he said in his first public appearance after the Conseil d’État ruling cancelled the season for good. His worry, now, is that he may be right, that the consequences of the season that did not finish, of a decision that nobody made and a fight that nobody wanted, will rumble on: beyond June, beyond the crisis, far into the future.

– New York Times

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