The French top-tier has often been criticized at great length for its lack of competition and quality. Whilst harsh, there is certainly elements of truth to this sentiment when comparing the league to other top European competitions. Besides Paris Saint-Germain, Ligue 1 clubs just haven’t got the financial muscle to compete in the market.
A French club has not claimed UEFA’s top European prize since Marseille’s Champions League success back in 1993. Worse still, French clubs have never seen success in UEFA’s second-tier competition—the Europa League—either.
There is a simple reason why French teams struggle to compete with the might of Spanish, German, English and Italian clubs. Ligue 1 is and has been for several years a feeder league—the country is unable to provide its players with enough incentive to stay, be that wages or domestic success. These players then get purchased by larger clubs, typically from one of the four aforementioned nations. This export significantly outweighs the league’s ability to import players of equal quality, forcing French sides to rely on nurturing youth talent in order to compete.
Total transfer expenditures by Ligue 1 clubs has failed to match the total income on player transfers since the 2013/14 season. This season in particular has seen the league overspend massively through PSG and Monaco’s financial backing. Interestingly though, even large financial support has failed to translate into a balancing of the checkbook; Monaco’s period of financial restraint forced the club to sell the likes of James Rodriguez, while even the major spending of PSG—which did not have these financial issues—could not counter the frequency of high-profile sales by their fellow competitors.
Looking at the previous two seasons in more detail, the 2015/16 season saw 31 players leave Ligue 1 to one of Europe’s top four leagues. Meanwhile, only 14 players joined the French top-flight from the major domestic competitions of Spain, Germany, England and Italy; PSG accounted for £69 million of the £99 million spent on players from said leagues.
At the time of writing, the current 2016/17 season has seen 18 players sold to Europe’s top four with just nine moving in the other direction. This time though, PSG has accounted for a staggering £83M of the £98M spent by the entire league on players from the aforementioned regions’ top-tiers.
The majority of 21st-century French footballers have achieved success playing away from their homeland. Whilst the youth coaching at French clubs is evidently exceptional—considering the immense pool of talent which has come from the country—the coaching at a senior level is seemingly not as effective, with players opting to move abroad to further their careers.
Consider the footballing icons. Zidane left Bordeaux to become one of the most defining footballers of the late 90s and early 00s era. After impressing at Monaco, Thierry Henry left for Italy before joining Arsenal to become arguably the greatest Premier League striker in history. The list of legends goes on and on: Marcel Desailly (AC Milan & Chelsea), Laurent Blanc (Manchester United, Inter Milan & Barcelona), Robert Pires (Arsenal), Lilian Thuram (Barcelona, Juventus & Parma), etc.
Looking at the French side that reached the European Championship final in 2016, only six of the 23-man squad played for a Ligue 1 club at the start of the tournament. Upon the resolution of the competition, half of those six had left for other leagues.
In comparison, 13 of Germany’s 23-man squad came from the Bundesliga, 14 of Spain’s 23-man squad came from La Liga, 18 of Italy’s 23-man squad came from Serie A and every single player in England’s 23-man squad came from the nation’s top-tier.
For the tournament as a whole, English leagues had 139 representatives (103 from the Premier League), Germany had 65 representatives (57 from the Bundesliga), Italy had 56 representatives (52 from Serie A) and Spain had 35 representatives (34 from La Liga). Only 22 players from Ligue 1 went to the championships in the league’s homeland—10 less than the Russian Premier League and 14 less than Turkey’s Super Lig.
This does not mean, however, that Ligue 1 produces poor players—quite the opposite. The French league has contributed more quality young players to Europe’s top leagues than any other country over the last five years. This trend does not look to be slowing any time soon either; the list of young, promising talents still to be pinched from France is staggering.
In England, the praise of the nation’s youth, like the Premier League itself, has become overhyped and written in a splattering of conceited hyperboles. Whilst Marcus Rashford, John Stones, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling are all good players with bright futures, the French equivalent right now outshines them completely with players considerably younger than the ones listed here.
Monaco have arguably the best up-and-coming talent of Ligue 1: 22-year-old Tiemoue Bakayoko. The versatile Frenchman has been making waves in a revitalised Monaco side that sits top of the league with a +39 goal-difference after just 20 games played. Teammates Thomas Lemar (21) and Kylian Mbappe Lottin (18) have also drawn attention for their performances. It won’t be long before these players will be playing for some of Europe’s big hitters.
Fellow title challengers Nice have also fielded some brilliant young talent this season. 21-year-old Wylan Cyprien has scored five goals from midfield, Vincent Koziello (21) is another man attracting plenty of attention and the slightly older Alassane Plea (23) has combined well with Liverpool outcast Mario Balotelli to score 10 goals, taking Nice to new heights.
These are purely scratches on the surface of Ligue 1’s huge pool of talent, which Europe’s top leagues are surely eyeing. Evidence of this comes quickly and in bulk, the most recent example being the well-documented comments of Sevilla’s Director of Football Monchi, who stated that Ligue 1 is so attractive for buyers due to the quality-cost benefits the league has become famous for.
The French league, beyond doubt, is one of the best if not the best producer of young quality talent in world football. The constant production line of players proves that youth coaching in the region is second to none. However, the inability of French clubs to hold onto their top talents will forever restrict the league, as a whole, to gain any form of reputable ground on Europe’s top four. Therefore, for the moment, it will remain the world’s most plentiful feeder league.