When Paris Saint Germain were taken over by Qatar Sports Investments in 2012, the year after Monaco were bought by Russian billionaire Dmitri Rybovlev, it seemed like European football was going to see a seismic shift. The fortunes of the French Ligue 1 clubs have improved since then, but not as dramatically as was expected, as shown by their Champions League exits this week. We look at the possible reasons why.
Relative Level of French League
English fans love to mock Ligue 1 as a minor European league, but the truth is, there are as many top teams in the French top flight as in its English equivalent. As well as PSG, it's possible to look at Lyon, Marseille and Lille as being teams that can, with the right squad mix, win the French title, or in recent memory have won.
When you add the extraordinary tale of Montpellier, the small southern club, waltzing to the Ligue 1 championship with Olivier Giroud in dynamite form, it's clear the league is very competitive in France. Nonetheless, few would argue that the prospect of taking on Guingamp or Evian is equivalent to the relatively evenly-matched challenges of the Bundesliga (Bayern excepted), or La Liga, where a club like Real Sociedad can, on their day, beat Barcelona.
The other club, along with PSG, that was supposed to form a bloc of new French-speaking European superpowers, was Monaco. The principality's club, long able to attract players with its tax-free salary, was bought by Rybovlev, who set about buying up European superstars.
Monaco are currently third in Ligue 1, and are having a good season on several fronts (they knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League, to the surprise of many), but like PSG, they have not dominated, at home or in Europe, in the way it was thought possible or likely. A reason for this is that the league the two teams play in does not offer the fierce competition of others, every week. However, one of the other reasons for this also unites the two clubs.
Financial Fair Play
UEFA, led by its president Michel Platini, brought in Financial Fair Play as an answer to the escalating arms-race they were seeing in football, where salaries and transfer prices for footballers were seen to be creating an increasingly unequal sporting landscape.
The idea behind FFP was that clubs in Europe-wide competitions (the Champions League and the Europa League) would undergo forensic accounting checks, to make sure they were in profit at the end of a predetermined three-year cycle.
Monaco, who entered the Champions League for the first time since the 2005-06 season, had spent the previous two years building up a squad of seasoned European veterans, mixed with upcoming international-class talent. It was expected that they would field Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Ricardo Carvalho and Joao Moutinho in the Champions League, instead Falcao was on loan at Manchester United, while James had gone to Real Madrid.
A big reason behind this movement seems to have been a fear of breaking FFP rules over club spending. Whatever the reason, the sudden culling of two of Monaco's marquee names handed the initiative to other clubs domestically, and put the side at a disadvantage in Europe.
PSG thought they had got around FFP regulations by offsetting astronomical player salaries for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva with a complex sponsorship deal whereby the Qatar Tourism Authority would sponsor the club, for what was certainly an over-the-odds sum of £167m.
UEFA felt this deal was unfair, and ignored it on balance sheets, saying PSG had overspent on salaries and transfer fees. Their penalty was a reduction in the size of their Champions League squad to 21 players, reducing the club's options in Europe and causing tiredness for its top performers. Manchester City were hit with the same penalty, and suffered similarly in Europe, where a full squad of 25 players is essential.
Will PSG or Monaco Dominate Europe in the Future?
The answer to this question seems to be "no", unless a more organic method of team-building is found instead of simply stockpiling highly-paid mercenary footballers from top clubs. Financial Fair Play, in spite of its name, appears to have hit the new-money clubs like Manchester City and PSG, and indirectly Monaco, hardest.
Although fans of hard-fought domestic leagues will rejoice at seeing a Ligue 1 table where, at the time of writing, PSG are level on points with a comparatively frugal Lyon, the truth is that French football is not offering the weekly test of strength and character that its top sides need in order to be Champions League contenders.
Former PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti saw moving to Real Madrid as a step up for his career, Falcao felt the same about playing at United, and that footballing hierarchy looks likely to remain for some time.
picture courtesy of lequipe.fr