Friday 21 August ~
Thirteen years after the exodus began, French football decided that summer 2009 was the moment when it would call time on its unofficial role as a relatively successful supplier of cheap goods for richer clubs in other parts of the continent. The trend began in the months around Euro 96, when Zinedine Zidane, Christophe Dugarry, Bixente Lizarazu and other members of the generation that would go on to win the World Cup and European Championship departed for clubs in Italy, Spain and England for inexplicably low fees (Zidane cost less than Chris Sutton had done two years earlier).
The French game eventually realised the value of its most talented assets (Michael Essien fetched Lyon £26 million and Marseille sold Didier Drogba for £24m), but the pattern has continued for years, with little of the money reinvested in players of a similar standard.
This summer things changed: France’s leading clubs embarked on an unprecedented spending spree while also managing to retain the services of players who have reached the stage in their careers where, since the Bosman ruling, a move abroad has become the next logical step. Didier Deschamps, Marseille’s ambitious new coach, oversaw the arrival of first-choice targets Lucho Gonzalez for €18m (£15.6m) from FC Porto and Stephane Mbia (€12m) from Rennes.
Lyon splashed out €72m – the heftiest outlay by a French club in a single transfer period – on Lisandro Lopez (€24m) and Aly Cissokho (€15m) from FC Porto, Lille’s Brazilian left-winger Michel Bastos (€18m) and St Etienne centre-forward Bafetimbi Gomis (€15m) in an attempt to win back the title they relinquished last May after seven consecutive triumphs. Bordeaux made perhaps the most astute purchase of all, permanently signing Ligue 1’s player of the year, Yoann Gourcuff, from AC Milan, following his superb performances on loan in 2008-09 when he inspired their title triumph and scored a couple of goals that will be shown for decades.
The net result of all this transfer activity is that Marseille have an excellent chance of becoming champions for the first time in 18 years; Lyon ought to make a decent fist of regaining their crown; and Bordeaux have decent prospects of successfully defending the title they won stylishly last season. More than anything, though, it’s heartening to see that the teams at the top have got stronger for the first time in 15 years, while the chasing pack (PSG, Rennes, Lille and Toulouse) ought to have improved after making ambitious purchases in the transfer market and holding on to most of their important players.
As if all that spending weren’t good news enough, there are also signs that Ligue 1’s days as Europe’s lowest-scoring major league may be coming to an end. Laurent Blanc, one of the finest defenders France has produced, always sought an opportunity to move up from the back, so it’s no surprise that since turning his hand to coaching he’s imbued his Bordeaux side with similar attacking values.
Having seen the former St Etienne and Auxerre centre-half’s relentlessly positive approach – two strikers and a playmaker at home, the will to win rather than draw away games – land him the title in only his second season, some of his contemporaries appear to be throwing off the shackles, too – the opening two weekends of the season spawned 57 goals, an average of 2.85 goals a game, the highest tally in eight seasons. It may not last, but the air of optimism was impossible to escape as 2009-10 kicked off. James Eastham