BY TOBY DENNETT
The first time I experienced French football was as a 10-year-old in my front room. Being born in the 1990’s, I had missed most of the lump it long and trudge of English football. The game I was introduced to was being graced by European hot shots, who had injected flair and finesse to the grit and passion of homegrown British footballers. One morning my dad had left Eurosport on after watching cycling or cross country skiing or something equally ‘yer da’ to cut the grass. They were showing highlights of the weekend fixtures in Ligue 1.
I was immediately captivated. There were players with silver boots and spider web tattoos hitting footballs really, really hard at the goal. The frenetic pace the game was being played at was like nothing I had seen before, and I’d seen Mark Viduka bag a hat-trick against Charlton. I was used to seeing Stephen Carr, David Dunn and Lee Carsley, completely unaware that there was an entire footballing universe, filled with incredible kits and players with lightning bolts shaved into their heads. There was Sidney Govou. I’d never been so excited to watch a man run around a football pitch. It didn’t matter that he was stationed on the edge of the D, completely peripheral, inconsequential to the action unfolding around him, he looked incredible doing it. Enthralled by the highlights, I had left my dad exasperated and angry, banging on the window, demanding I unplug the lawnmower from the inside socket. Sorry dad, not today pal. I’ve just found out about Olympique Lyonnaise and they’ve got the Brazilian bloke in all red Predator Pulses scoring free kicks from 45 yards. The front lawn will have to wait.
After the programme had finished, I was a changed man. No more Match of the Day for me. Shepherd’s pie? Forget it mum; coq au vin, s’il vous plait. I spent hours looking for a player with a white Mohican in a blue-ish kit that I’d seen in incredibly low resolution on a video hidden in the extras menu of FIFA 2003. After exhausting my knowledge of dial up internet forums and search engines, I finally found my man, Serbian forward, Danijel Ljuboja. 34 goals in 123 for Strasbourg, he was neither prolific, nor high profile, but for some reason, in the incredibly limited customisation of FIFA 2003, the creators had decided to give him his very own custom hair do. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen. I was hooked.
Ligue 1 has historically been overlooked as a top European league. Consistently ranked below England, Spain, Germany and Italy, it is seen as a breeding ground or a stepping stone for young exciting players, not a final destination. Where other leagues have all had their time in the sun, the romance of Italy in the 90s, both the Galactico and Messi/Ronaldo era of Spanish football. Bayern’s late noughties/early 2010’s dominance of Europe attracted top talent to Germany, and the mid noughties consistent success in Europe by Premier League sides made England a very attractive proposition for world class talent.
However, in spite of this, French teams have consistently performed well in Europe, none more so than at the time of my Francophilian pseudo footballing, pseudo sexual awakening to French football. In 2004, Monaco, led by Fernando Morientes, found themselves in the Champions League final against Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto. Monaco perhaps encapsulates the essence of French football more than any other side. A principality draped in riches, there is perhaps no place more desirable to earn a living. And yet the style of play is at odds with the surrounding lifestyle. Instead of meandering yachts and mid morning strolls in the sunshine, the style of play was electrifying, dynamic, exciting.
That electricity has come to prominence more than ever this season, as Ligue 1 teams are getting more attention than ever before, thanks to the global presence of social media and the streaming culture that allows us to watch any game unfold, anywhere on earth.
When a Middle Eastern take over at PSG saw unrivalled finances being pumped into the club, French football gained some leverage in attracting top talent. The takeover coincided with the arrivals of, to name a few; Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore and Marco Veratti, as well as the iconic figures of David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Following the financial takeover at PSG, the club developed a monopoly in France, much like the Lyon side I was captivated by as a 10-year-old, which saw OL win the league 7 times in a row. In Paris, 5 consecutive titles came, but so did the critics. Players who moved to PSG were seen as cashing in and taking the easy option, instead of pushing themselves and furthering their careers in a more competitive league.
The nouveau riche PSG attracted top names to the French capital. Rather than act as a catalyst for interest, it turned Ligue 1 into forgone conclusion, and arguably diminished interest from further afield. Already down the pecking order of European leagues, France was now seen as another Scotland. 1 powerful team, and 19 whipping boys.
But this season has proved entirely different. Thanks to the forethought, extensive scouting network and focus on young players, Monaco and Nice have been going toe to toe with PSG all season, with the title going right down to the wire.
The free scoring exploits of Monaco have seen them plunder more goals than any other top flight team in Europe. They are not only doing the business domestically, but are also pulling up trees in the Champions League. Rarely have a team so young combined the fearlessness of youth with the composure this side has shown. Looking back through recent footballing history, the only side that can hold a candle to the youth and success this Monaco side are experiencing are Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side of the 90’s and early 00’s. Thomas Lemar (21), Bernardo Silva (22), Fabinho (23), Benjamin Mendy (22), Tiemoué Bakayoko (22) and the jewel in the crown, the emerging Kylian Mbappé, who at just 18 possesses a devastating combination of explosive pace, slaloming dribbling and frightening composure and looks destined to become football’s next superstar.
Should Monaco defy the odds and go on to lift the Champions League title this season, there is a real chance their success could act as a catalyst to building up the profile and attraction of Ligue 1. The last time a French side won the Champions League was in its inaugural season in 1993; a Marseille side containing Marcel Desailly and Rudi Voller. Lead by Didier Deschamps, they overcame one of the greatest AC Milan sides in history, including Van Basten, Maldini, Baresi, Rijkaard, and the recently departed club legend, Jean-Pierre Papin.
French football has always had a place in my heart, ever since I first laid eyes on Sidney Govou. And for the first time in my lifetime, the tides may be turning in Europe. French football has the chance to rightfully stand side by side with the European footballing superpowers and stake a claim to be included among them.
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