LE SPIRO: Welcome to 'The League of Talents'
By M. Spiro
On Tuesday the LFP announced a new slogan: 'Ligue 1 - The League of Talents'. And on the evidence of what we saw at the recent World Cup in Russia, it's hard to argue with that, writes Matthew Spiro.
Of Didier Deschamps' 23-man squad that conquered all this summer to clinch France's second world crown, nine were on the books of Ligue 1 clubs, including the star of the team and arguably the entire World Cup, PSG sensation Kylian Mbappé. On top of the three Parisians, the trio from Marseille, two Monégasques and one Lyon man, Les Bleus possessed players from most of Europe's elite: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Tottenham, Sevilla and Stuttgart all had representatives.
Where credit's due...
Again, though, the majority of those foreign-based players owe much to Ligue 1. Raphael Varane learned his trade at Lens and got the opportunity to show off his ability in the top tier aged 17. Ditto Ousmane Dembélé at Rennes. Samuel Umtiti and Corentin Tolisso were part of a brilliant generation to come through at Lyon. N'Golo Kanté first shone at Caen, Olivier Giroud with Montpellier, and so it continues.
French clubs continue to nurture exceptional talent - of that there is no question. The challenge facing them now is to keep hold of these players for longer periods in order to ensure the league continues to grow stronger. The trend certainly looks positive. France's squad that finished runners-up at Euro 2016 had only five Ligue 1 representatives - virtually half the number present in Russia.
PSG's financial muscle is allowing them to hold on to - and not just develop - fine footballers. Alphonse Areola, Presnel Kimpembe and Adrien Rabiot all came through the ranks and now play regularly for the Ligue 1 champions. Marseille's resurgence, boosted by their thrilling run to the Europa League final, is making them a more attractive proposition again, too. For example, where Roma's approaches for Florian Thauvin might have borne fruit a couple of years ago, these days the France winger will not even entertain the idea of leaving the Vélodrome.
No team has produced more fine players than AS Monaco in recent years. Sadly for their fans, the principality club continues to play a development role, and after the sales of Mbappé, Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Bernardo Silva in 2017, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Moutinho have all left so far this summer. It is hard to find fault in Monaco's transfer policy, such has been their success both financially and on the pitch, yet in the longer term, Ligue 1 would surely benefit from Monaco's also keeping their talents for longer. Lyon are starting to manage it, and against all odds it looks like their skipper and talisman Nabil Fekir could be staying another year at least.
Bottom line rising
Let's not kid ourselves, though. Money remains key and so long as there is a gulf in earnings between Premier League players and Ligue 1 players the frequent departures will continue. Fekir, after all, is only a Lyon player today because his proposed €60m transfer to Liverpool collapsed at the last moment.
But again the trend here is encouraging for France too. The new domestic television rights deal, which starts in 2020, will be worth a mammoth €1.2 billion per year, a figure that makes the French league the third most lucrative in Europe. It brings Ligue 1 more or less in line with the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A, and ensures the top French clubs at least will be able to compete with the Premier League in transfer dealings.
In 2022, when France travel to Qatar to defend their world title, there's every chance the majority of the squad will be based in Ligue 1. So, at a time when football in France is most definitely on the up, let's dare to dream a little…
Let's imagine that Zinédine Zidane's globally feared juggernaut will line up in Qatar with a PSG spine of Benjamin Pavard, Paul Pogba, Kanté and, of course, the three-time Ballon d'Or winner Mbappé. Veteran skipper Hugo Lloris is now back with his hometown club Nice, where has been awarded the freedom of the city. Champions League winners Lyon contribute no fewer than seven players with Umtiti, Tolisso, Fekir, Alexandre Lacazette, Tanguy Ndombele, Houssem Aouar and Europe's hottest young striker Amine Gouiri all making the cut. And, of course, the darling of Marseille, Antoine Griezmann, is hoping to replicate his title-winning club form after netting 63 goals in the previous season. OK, I'm getting a bit carried away now. Again. But you get the gist.