Is Ligue 1 Ready For Prime Time?

The French league has gotten some good P.R. of late (thanks to a certain player on a certain club), but it’s still a long way from Europe’s elite

If some segments of the soccer press are to be believed, Paris Saint-Germain, with its record transfer fees, big-name stars, and Zlatan-mania, is leading French football into a new, vibrant era. Despite the club’s undeniable glamour, though, Ligue 1 is still not ready to crack Europe’s big four: the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A.

Although it’s well-known that FIFA’s rankings can be downright comical, the UEFA coefficient numbers are a much better reflection of where a country stands relative to its peers. Consulting those rankings tells a story very different from the media’s love fest with PSG.

Today, France is the sixth best league in Europe, according to UEFA, behind the debt-burdened Portuguese Primeira Liga (fourth) and the ever-anachronistic Italian league (fifth). Spain, England, and Germany, in that order, are the top three.

Ligue 1 as a whole has not been as successful as PSG’s recent Champions League outings suggest. In fact, French clubs have actually stagnated in European outings. Long gone are the “glory days”—if you can call them that—with Monaco making the Champions league final in 2004 and Marseille making the UEFA Cup final in the same year. Marseille won the inaugural 1993 Champions League, two years after losing the final. Bordeaux also reached a UEFA Cup final in 1996, and PSG won the Cup Winners’ Cup in the same year. In the days of black-and-white television Saint-Etienne fell to Bayern Munich in 1976, while Stade de Reims were twice European Cup finalist in 1956 and 1959. And that’s been about it for French clubs in Europe. Paltry compared to even the Dutch or Portuguese.

What Ligue 1 has lacked is a real locomotive club. Spain has Barcelona and Real Madrid; Germany has Bayern Munich; England, Manchester United, among others; Italy has Milan and Inter; and Portugal has Porto and Benfica. Today, only PSG can fill that role, and barely. In the days of Lyon’s dominance, which saw it win seven back-to-back Ligue 1 titles from 2002–08, Jean Michel Aulas’ club never achieved anything in Europe. In fact, it was only in the dying throes of Lyon’s Ligue 1 reign that the club finally reached a Champions League semifinal, in the 2009–10 season.

In 2010–2011, both Marseille and Lyon’s progress stopped at the round of 16, while Auxerre finished last in its group. The following season, Lyon was shockingly ousted in the round of 16 by Cyprian club APOEL. Marseille did well enough, losing at the quarterfinal stage, while champions Lille finished last in its group. In 2012–13, the new-look PSG bought the previous year by Qatar Sports Investments, supplanted Lyon in the Champions League and reached the quarterfinals. But this did not erase the embarrassing performances of Lille and Montpellier, who both finished last in their respective groups. Lyon missed out on last season’s Champions League, eliminated by Real Sociedad in the qualifying playoff. PSG reached the quarterfinals, but Ligue 1 took another heavy blow as one of its most successful clubs historically, Marseille, exited the group stages without registering a single point.

Defenders of Ligue 1’s integrity will point out that a lack of financial means is the logical explanation for the poor results in Europe. They would do well to consider Ligue 1’s recent Europa League outings then. Since the competition’s inception, Lyon—last season—has been the only Ligue 1 team to reach the quarterfinals. In that year, the dynastic club Saint-Etienne fell to Danish Esberg, and Nice to Cyprian club Apollon Limassol in the playoff round. Bordeaux finished last in its group. Finally, when debt-saddled Spanish and Portuguese clubs consistently register Europa League final-four appearances, then the argument of money no longer stands.

PSG will undoubtedly prove to be a good public relations (and money) draw for Ligue 1. The rest of the league, however, remains poor comparatively to PSG and its European peers. Ligue 1 only has one Champions League title (1993), a Cup Winners Cup (1996), and semifinal berths you can count on two hands. The argument or projection of Ligue 1 improving to match Europe’s elite any time soon is as credible as PSG’s new club creed is ambitious: “rêvons plus grand,” dream bigger.