French football has historically not been a place to splash cash, nor have teams dominated for huge lengths of time. However, the modern world has a way of changing tradition, and the things that used to be sacred and assured can disappear in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Looking back through Ligue 1 history, success was cyclical; teams came to the fore for a handful of years and then faded. Some were able to return, others less so. As such, the Reims of the 1950s feel like a relic, but the Saint Etienne sides of the 1960s and 70s (they won their last Ligue 1 in 1980) are more of the modern era, part of the school that went on to contain Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon.
However, Marseille aside, none of these dynasties came about from a cash-driven team assembling, and even then, the 1993 European Champions developed a number of their own players.
That was all to change in the late 2000s, as Qatari Sports Investment looked for an opportunity to inject some capital into a football club with a number of sporting and non-sporting motives. It was new to France, but England had seen it plenty of times before and there was a blueprint for the sides likely to draw attention.
Both Chelsea and Manchester City, the most famous English examples followed this guide, and Ligue 1 were soon to see why. The club needed to be in a big city. Transport links are important, and fans need to be able to get to see their team, but players also need easy access in and out not just of the city but the country.
Chelsea is in London, and Manchester has its own airport, too. There needs to have been success previously, even if it was fleeting rather than by domination.
Chelsea were by no means behemoths when Roman Abramovich arrived, but their name had been scored onto a number of trophies, and likewise Manchester City. Both had fallen on harder times since then, so a small improvement would resonate – to take the clubs back to their previous level and then go on, well, the infrastructure should already be in place. Where was that the case in France?
Well, and this is perhaps why it represents the most successful of all the takeovers by Middle Eastern conglomerates in football, it was solely in Paris. Only in the capital of France, a city of 2.2 million people and home to one professional football club (London has 9 million people, and Chelsea are one of 12 professional clubs). It was going to be a cakewalk.
And yet it didn’t quite work out like that. At least not at first.
QSI took the reins at Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 and immediately things began to happen at the Parc des Princes; speculation began to swirl around both club and country that something special was going to happen – and quickly.
Sure enough, within two years France had a procession of champions that have yet to relinquish their grip on the Ligue 1 title, nor do they look likely to do so any time soon.
However, this article isn’t looking at the behemoth in the Parc des Princes, but rather the void from which they emerged, waving their chequebooks, contracts and pens, and why it was so easy for them.
The Ligue 1 title had been skipping around for a few years after Lyon had slipped back from their early 21st-century domination. With no standout club, it means French talent was spread around as well.
The squad that went to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup was almost evenly split between domestic and international players, the former coming from just four teams.
There were four Lyon players, four Bordeaux players, two from Marseille and Andre-Pierre Gignac, who was to leave Toulouse for Marseille that summer.
That spread illustrates the fact that French domestic football was waiting for the new force to come. Lyon, of course, had had their day. Bordeaux were 2008/09 Champions, and Marseille had returned to the top the following year.
The big names, as so often had been the case for a league that was never wealthy, were abroad. Thierry Henry was at Barcelona, Franck Ribery had moved to Bayern. Clairefontaine giveth, but Champions League money taketh away.
Of course, France has always had a league that thrived on its imports, from South America and Africa especially. This is something that PSG were able to sidestep. Their big money signings were invariably European, or from European sides – most famously Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though he would not arrive for some years to come.
The big signing for PSG in the summer of 2010 was Nenê, who arrived from Monaco for around €5.5 million. “Like PSG,” he announced, “I’m hoping to have a big league season and to pull something off in the Europa League”.
It was, clearly, a very different Ligue 1. So who were to be the big names, both individually, and on the league table?
France is an interesting country at the start of the campaign. So often are the best players cherry-picked by other leagues, that it can take a few weeks for new teams to settle, and the table can have an unfamiliar look, and unexpected leaders, especially in the first couple of weeks.
Leading the pack early in 2010/11 were, as it happens, Paris Saint Germain, after a thumping opening day win over St Etienne. Following them were Toulouse and Stade Brestois.
Newly promoted Brest had a topsy turvy season. They started with one win in three games, in which they looked out of their depth and were left rock bottom. That was followed by six victories in eight, and a rise to the top of the table. The remainder of their campaign came like the deflation of a balloon, with the new boys finishing just two points above relegation. Two points above relegation is, of course, safe.
Not faring so well were fellow promoted side Arles-Avignon. Even with a team boasting players as talented such as Yann Kermorgant, Remy Cabella and Angelos Charisteas, they struggled. It took until May before they won for the second time, and their feeble relegation was confirmed well before the end of the campaign.
Their two highest defeats, both 5-0, came at the hands of Lille and Lyon, while there was a heavy home defeat to Marseille amongst others.
Those better teams, as they began to emerge from the pack as the season progressed, were familiar names. It was not often that teams would dominate Ligue 1, but cream would rise gradually to the top and, when faced with poor sides, were ruthless.
Marseille’s season was punctuated, as had been too many before by an inconsistency that lost them vital points. While they mounted what was a credible defence of their title, at no stage did it feel the trophy would be returning to the south coast – but heading north.
Lille enjoyed one of those seasons that come along every so often. The names of their team are still resonant in football today, though Ligue 1 top scorer Moussa Sow, now with Ümraniyespor, has enjoyed a productive career in Turkey.
He finished the year ahead of both Eden Hazard and Gervinho; behind that attack sat a midfield containing Yohan Cabaye, Rio Mavuba and Ludovic Obraniak. The defence was players like Mathieu Debuchy and Adil Rami.
Even so, defeats to both Marseille and Lyon gave the early season a difficult look, but relentless result gathering as the year wore on saw Lille top by Christmas and rarely challenged afterwards.
One of their most impressive performances came in a December game with Lorient. Sow helped himself to a hat-trick as both sides traded blows for an hour, before the Dogues pulled away to win 6-3. Scoring twice for Lorient that day was Kevin Gameiro, who was to make bigger news the following summer when he traded Brittany for the capital and became one of the big signings for the new regime at Paris Saint Germain.
Joining him the following summer would be Blaise Matuidi, after enjoying a breakout season for an inconsistent St Etienne. Les Verts beat rivals Lyon for the first time since 1996, with the goal coming from Dimitri Payet, but finished a disappointing 10th.
Also enjoying a strong season, though not quite as powerful as the year before, were Marseille. Playing catch-up in Ligue 1 from the off, after defeats to both Caen and Valenciennes in the first couple of games, it was a still seemed to be a good campaign. The new signings bedded in, and their league form turned around enough that they were a dominant second place by the end of the year, losing just six matches in total and even popping to the top of the table after a 4-2 win over local rivals Nice in which Andre Ayew scored on the stroke of each half hour.
Back then, they were even able to win games in the Champions League, earning a spot in the last sixteen after qualifying from a group that contained Chelsea (who topped it), Zilina and Spartan Moscow. That adventure was to end at the hands of Manchester Utd, but the money it brought would have been important.
In a painful foreshadowing of what they might expect, Zilina completed an unwanted record when they lost all their group games, just the 15th side to have done so.
Meanwhile, Lyon also finished runners-up in their group to Schalke, before their campaign ran aground in spectacular fashion in a last 16 tie against Real Madrid.
Los Merengues had sailed through a group that contained the other French entrants, Auxerre, who managed a solitary win against Ajax and weren’t even able to earn a spot in the Europa League – that went to the Dutch giants.
The sides that were in the Europa League endured different seasons; Montpellier failed in the qualifying stages, Hungarian side Gyori enjoying a rare recent moment in the sun.
That left just Lille and Paris Saint Germain, both of whom made it to the knockout phase. Lille lost to PSV Eindhoven in the Round of 32, while the Parisians got past BATE Borisov before falling to eventual semi-finalists Benfica.
Marseille, it is perhaps painful for their fans to note, were the big spenders this year. In a campaign that saw much more money come into Ligue 1 than leave it, the acquisitions of Loïc Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac far outstripped the earnings of Mamadou Niang, Bakare Kone and Hatem Ben Arfa, all of whom went to pastures new.
Indeed, looking down the list of transfers, the key to most clubs’ business seems to have been balancing the books. Lyon took Yoann Gourcuff from Bordeaux for around €20m, but with their Champions League money, their pot would have been necessarily bigger, as would their demands.
Across the whole of Ligue 1, there was a net gain of around €60 million on transfer fees, money that would allow French clubs to continue doing what they did, developing players, and then selling them on to richer leagues when their time came.
This was the summer that Laurent Koscielny came to Arsenal from Lorient, and for a little less, Stephane Sessegnon’s club could not refuse Sunderland’s millions when they came knocking. Players would leave Paris again, but seldom under those terms.
The following year, Montpellier worked their way to the title ahead of Paris Saint Germain. However, the wheels of change had already started to turn; money was flooding out of the league, and players were flooding in. The playing field was being skewed in favour of the capital, and things would never be the same again.
This year, with the plots and subplots running alongside one another, with no team comfortably outspending the others, but rather teams that had been built over a number of years coming to the fore, was the last of its kind.
The revolution was on its way, and first French football, then European football, would never be the same again.