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The Only Way is Up For French Football
The French First Division has never had quite the same limelight or recognition that it's neighbouring divisions have had. It has never been a dominant league in Europe in regards to competing over a number of eras with the Spanish, English, and Italian premier divisions. Over the years Ligue 1 has had to endure financial struggles and has also had to accept the fact that France's best players will all but leave the nation's league when they become more established. The French premier division has never been regarded as a "top league" in Europe. The top three occupants of the status has been battled out between the Spanish, the English, the Italians, and more recently the Germans for the past sixty to seventy years.
The French first division, Ligue 1, was established in 1894 but only became professional in 1932. The first ever professional official French champions were Olympique Lillois - the club later merged with SC Fives to become to what we now know, LOSC Lille - and Marseille won their first French championship all the way back in 1937. It seemed that the French were finally making progress and catching up with the English in regards to club football. (The English League had been going for the previous forty years)
In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s the league was dominated by AS Saint Etienne who won four consecutive championships between 1967 and 1970 and then three more between 1974 and 1976. AS Saint Etienne would later produce one of the best players France has ever produced in Michel Platini. He would lead the team to capture another French championship in 1981 before securing a move to Italian giants, Juventus. AS Saint Etienne remain the most successful domestic club France by winning a record ten Ligue 1 titles.
Olympique de Marsielle would be the next team to dominate the league. In 1986, Bernard Tapie purchased the club and immediately demanded success. He wasted no time and signed German veteran, Karl-Heinz Forster, and Alain Giresse in the summer of 1986. Over the next few seasons Tappie secured the signings of a number of world class players such as French legends Jean-Pierre Papin, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, along with other global stards such as Abedi Pele, Chris Waddle, Rudi Voller and a certain Eric Cantona. Between the years 1989 and 1992, Marseille won four consecutive league titles and the French Cup. However the most prolific moment in the club's history, and incidentally in French football history, came when Marseille beat Fabio Capello's AC Milan in the newly formatted UEFA Champions League Final in 1993 to lift the European Cup for the first time in their history - It was the first and only time a French club has lifted the famous European Cup. Didier Deschamps became the youngest captain to lift the trophy and Fabian Barthez the youngest goalkeeper.
For the next coming years, due to Marseille being relegated due to the infamous VA-OM match fixing scandal which saw all of their stars depart, Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco fought out the right to be the best club team in France. In 1994 Paris Saint-Germain won it's first title since 1986 having the likes of David Ginola in their ranks, but finished runners-up three times before the millennium was over.
AS Monaco, under the management and guidance of Arsene Wenger, brought the majority of the "golden generation" of French football through it's youth academy. Wenger brought into Monaco's first team the likes of future French stars, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Lillium Thuram, and David Trezeguet. With the additions of established signings such as Glen Hoddle, George Weah, Jurgen Klinsmann, and Yori Djorkaeff, AS Monaco won French league titles in both 1997 and 2000. However with their star players moving to more prestigious clubs with both Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet moving to Juventus, their reign on French football was premature.
France's national team has AS Monaco's youth academy to thank for developing the backbone of their 1998 FIFA World Cup squad. In the squad, Lillium Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, David Trezeguet, and Thierry Henry all featured for France and helped the team win the FIFA World Cup on home soil. It was the first time a country had won the World Cup on home soil since Argentina in 1978.
The new millennium belonged to only one club, who's dominance of the French league had never been seen before. Records were broken and new ones were established in the new millennium and a french footballing dictatorship had seemingly started. Olympique Lyonnais, or Lyon, were very much the team of the 2000s. Lyon had followed AS Monaco's regime of producing young stars and decided to invest heavily into their youth programme. Players such as Michael Essien, Eric Abidal, Florent Malouda, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mlatem Pjanic, and Hugo Lloris all were tutored through the Lyon academy. It certainly was a substantial investment because Lyon's young players would bring them seven consecutive French titles between the years 2002 and 2008, a feat that had never been accomplished in French football.
However unlike Monaco, Lyon achieved some European success as well. They reached several European quarter-finals and reached the 2010 UEFA Champions League semi-final which they lost to eventual runners-up Bayern Munich. Lyon's academy is still today regarded as one of the best in Europe and is still producing future stars. Currently Maxime Gonalons and Clement Grenier are both being pegged as future French stars.
Lyon won their last title in 2008 and it has been six years since their last Ligue 1 championship. In that time five different French clubs have won French titles. In 2009 Laurent Blanc managed Bordeaux to their first championship in the new millennium, Yoann Gourcuff, Maroane Chamackh, and Alou Diarra the notable contributes. Dider Deschamps returned to Marseille, after almost twenty years, as coach and won the French domestic double in 2010. A young and enthusiastic Lille OSC won the title in 2011 with the like of Eden Hazard, Yoan Cabaye, and Gervinho in their ranks. Montpellier won it's first ever French league title in 2012 under the management of Rene Girard with the help of playmaker Younes Belhanda and top goalscorer Olivier Giroud. And finally last season Paris Saint-Germain were run away champions of France for the first time in nineteen years.
In 2011 the Qatar Investment Authority gained a majority share in Paris Saint-German, and subsequently made them one of the most, if not the, richest clubs in the world. Chelsea and Manchester City in England had benefited immensely from private billionaire take-overs and PSG were the first to do it in France. Paris Saint-German had always been a prolific French club but had never had a period in which they dominated. PSG hold the record in France for finishing runners-up in Ligue 1, they have finished 2nd seven times, the last being in 2012 where they missed out to Montpellier.
In 2011 Paris Saint-German invested heavily in the squad and brought in young Argentinian starlet Javier Pastore from Palermo, French favourite Jeremy Menez from Roma, Ligue 1 top scorer Kevin Gameiro from Lorient, and Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu also from Palermo. After finishing a disappointing runners-up in 2012, they invested heavily again the following summer. They shook the European transfer market by acquiring three of the best players in the Italian Serie A by purchasing Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Milan, and Ezequiel Lavezzi from Napoli. Paris Saint-German had now become not just an elite club in France but in the whole of Europe. It was the first time since the prolific Lyon dominance that a French club could compete for silverware in Europe.
Paris Saint-German won their third French league title in 2013 and the first in nineteen seasons. They lost merely to Barcelona on away goals in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final and star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic finished the season with the French league's top goalscorer award and Ligue 1's Player of the Year - succeeding previous PSG star David Ginola who was the first recipient of the award in 1994.
In 2011 AS Monaco were relegated from Ligue 1. The most devastating time in Monaco's history would soon follow by perhaps it's most promising. Exactly a year later, in 2012, Russian billionaire, and Monaco resident, Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased the club and promised to invest millions to make it one of Europe's elite. He quickly assigned Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri as head coach and signed a number of prolific players. Ranieri quickly earned Monaco promotion in the first time of asking and was rewarded by a heavy transfer budget. In the summer of 2013 AS Monaco have purchased the signings of FC Porto duo Joao Mountinho and James Rodriguez, Portuguese veteran Ricardo Carvalho from Real Madrid, and most notably Colombian star Radamel Falcao from Atletico de Madrid.
The 2013-14 Ligue 1 season will probably be the most historic season ever in Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain will compete both for the French league title and the UEFA Champions League, Marseille, Lille, and Lyon will undoubtedly compete for the title and Champions League places, and now AS Monaco will add more depth and competition to the league. Falcao and Ibrahimovic will unquestionably both be fighting for the top scorer birth at the end of the season, along with the Player of the Year Award.
The French public have a lot to be hopeful in the near future. It is unknown how the French national team will do in next season's FIFA World Cup, but what we do know is that Ligue 1 will be as competitive as ever. Surely with the emergence of AS Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain it will bring French stars back to France (and Monaco respectfully) and pave the way for Ligue 1 to be one of the elite leagues in Europe.
France will hold the UEFA European Championships in 2016 where the French FA have financed for new stadia to be built or redeveloped. There are ten stadiums, nine cities, that have been selected to host the tournament. Paris will be the only city with two host stadiums, having PSG's Parc des Princes and the national stadium, Stade de France, situated within the city. New stadia has already been built for Lille OSC and Nice - Lille opened their new home, Stade Pierre Mauroy, last summer while Nice will open the newly built Allianz Riviera this summer before the 2013-14 campaign. Olympique Lyonnais will be awarded a new stadium which will bring a probable end to the Stade de Gerland. Significant redevelopments have been invested into the stadiums of Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lens, and Saint-Etienne so that the tournament will meet UEFA's stadia regulations.
Marseille's stadium, the Stade Velodrome, has gone under severe reconstruction during the last two years. The stadium has accommodated cranes and heavy machinery in the stadium for the past two seasons in order for the stadium to expand it's capacity and build a unique roof for the stadium. In 2014 the Stade Velodrome will be the largest club stadium in France and will be awarded a five star rating by FIFA, being only the second stadium to be awarded that in France behind the national stadium, Stade de France. With Marseille's new stadium and expanded capacity, it will bring a substantial amount of money into the club and perhaps with an additional transfer budget, Olympique de Marseille will compete for many years to come with PSG and Monaco for France's biggest prize.
Like Marseille, bigger budgets will be made available for clubs such as Lyon, Lille, and Saint-Etienne who last season, all competed for European births. With a bigger transfer budget, larger attendances, and with the clubs being more financially stable, now these clubs have the opportunity to develop themselves into title contenders and to be able to play in the UEFA Champions League every season. AS Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain will probably battle the Ligue 1 title out for the next few seasons but when the new stadia is complete there is no reason why these types of clubs won't reach above their expectations.
If everything goes according to plan, and money is brought into France and Ligue 1, then by the 2016 European Championships, Ligue 1 might be one of the elite leagues in Europe. For the past two seasons we have seen world class players being drawn to Ligue 1 by Paris Saint-German and AS Monaco - Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao being the most notable - so there is no saying what will happen and who will be the next few superstars to join the new "French Revolution."
The only way is up, for French football.