SPIRO BLOG: Ligue 1 needs to surf on EURO wave
By M. Spiro
France's new stadiums, burgeoning young talent and soaring public interest should ensure this summer's EURO leaves behind a positive legacy, writes Matthew Spiro.
Last weekend offered us a tantalizing glimpse of a bright and vibrant future for Ligue 1. With all ten matches being played at the same time on Saturday evening - and still so much to be decided in the battles for European qualification and top-flight survival - there was an added sense of occasion and an extra buzz of excitement around the country. This was heightened by the visual spectacle witnessed by some 250,000 supporters inside the largely clean, modern, atmospheric grounds and the millions of others watching on television.
The OL Show
Nearly 57,000 crammed into Lyon's majestic Parc OL to witness the amazing 6-1 drubbing of Monaco. The victory sealed Lyon's qualification for next season's Champions League group stage, but even more encouraging was the sense that the love, passion and enthusiasm was returning. The heaving, vertiginous stands were a sea of blue and red, as les Lyonnais paid homage to Bruno Génésio's resurgent team, a dynamic group founded on homegrown talent and encapsulated by the brilliant Rachid Ghezzal, who was born in Décines a stone's throw from this glittering stadium. No wonder the supporters can relate to this team and look on at it with such a sense of pride.
Jean-Michel Aulas' club is again providing an example for other French teams to follow. The OL president worked tirelessly for a decade to secure ownership, planning permission and the finances for construction of what is one of Europe's best stadiums and is beginning to reap the rewards. The Parc OL will be the centerpiece of an exhilarating future - provided, of course, the team's quality continues to match its surroundings. The last four months suggest it will. When you are able to develop youngsters like Ghezzal, Alexandre Lacazette, Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Lopes, Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons and Nabil Fekir, it's difficult to go wrong.
Nice, under the tutelage of a former Lyon coach Claude Puel, are perhaps the club that has followed the model closest. They, too, have a bristling new home and while they don't fully own the arena, Les Aiglons showed last weekend that their new home could also be an inspiring place. The Allianz Riviera was colourful, noisy and, crucially, full for the visit of Saint-Etienne. The home team responded, winning 2-0 to remain in contention for third spot and a place in the Champions League preliminary rounds.
Nice have traditionally boasted a raucous, passionate following. Some have questioned whether that noise and lust would travel from the characterful Stade du Ray to a newer, modern ground. There have been some worryingly quiet evenings at the Allianz Riviera. Again, though, last Saturday proved it could be a formidable, intimidating sanctuary. Indeed, as Hatem Ben Arfa completed a lap of honour in front of 35,000 screaming Niçois, the brilliant winger was clearly moved. It was probably a scene he won't see again (Ben Arfa looks set to leave), but Nice's exciting young team - also brimming with youth-team graduates - could easily recreate this kind of festive, happy, electric environment in the months and years to come.
Toulouse stepping up
If Lyon and Nice are footballing hotbeds these days, the same cannot be said of rugby-mad Toulouse. Yet even there, the support was fervent on Saturday in a nicely renovated stadium that accommodated 30,000 locals. Pascal Dupraz has worked miracles since becoming coach in early March, and last weekend's scenes poured scorn on the oft-aired view that Toulouse FC will never attract a sizeable, loyal following.
On the same night, warm, joyous atmospheres accompanied matches in two more excellent, accommodating, ultra-modern stadiums in Bordeaux and Lille. It was only in Marseille - where the Stade Vélodrome is the biggest and arguably most spectacular of the new grounds - that the atmosphere fell short. A club up for sale, a team that had gone 15 home games without a win and partial closure of the stadium ensured there was no party for the visit of Reims.
Financially, the majority of Ligue 1 clubs are still some way behind their counterparts in England, Spain and Germany. Yet their ability to develop young talent is keeping them competitive. Witnessing the sudden emergence of Ousmane Dembélé at Rennes has been exhilarating. The teenager sparked an enormous scramble in Europe that Borussia Dortmund recently won. But the precocious kids are everywhere. Those currently attracting envious glances from outside France include Sofiane Boufal, Michy Batshuayi, Vincent Koziello, Thomas Lemar, Didier Ndong, Adam Ounas, Morgan Sanson, Adrien Rabiot, Ghezzal, Fekir, Lacazette, Tolisso and Umtiti.
France's aim must be to ensure that EURO 2016 is a turning point, just as the 2006 World Cup was for Germany and the Bundesliga. The infrastructure is now in place. The hard work that has gone in to reforming youth development over the past decade also appears to be paying off, with Ligue 1 re-establishing its reputation as Europe's premier provider of talent. Didier Deschamps has worked hard to ensure Les Bleus are popular once more, and purvey a positive, likeable image. The hosts could easily do well this summer. If they do then it is imperative the French game manages to feed off the inevitable feel-good factor that would follow.
Last weekend in Ligue 1 gave the public a taste of what could be to follow, and this Saturday night will surely deliver more of the same. Bring on the summer.