"Farmers League"-is Ligue 1 really lagging behind?

08.11.2020

After Olympique Lyon beat Manchester City 3-1 in the Champions League Quarterfinals of the 2019/20 Season, Kylian Mbappé couldn´t resist hitting back at critics, who questioned the quality of Ligue 1 in the past, ironically tweeting "Farmers League" and celebrating two French clubs playing in the semifinals, while all English, Italian and Spanish clubs had already been eliminated. Especially in the English-speaking football community, less successful competitions are often dubbed as "Farmers Leagues", suggesting that football is not played on a professional level there and therefore lacks in quality on the pitch. Ligue 1 is struggling to get rid of this stigma like no other league in Europe, but is that justified? Is Ligue 1 really lagging behind?

Comparing competitions to each other is no easy procedure. UEFA ranks each European division in the 5-year-coefficients, on their official website it is stated: "The association club coefficients are based on the results of each association's clubs in the five previous UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League seasons." At the end of last season, Ligue 1 was ranked 5th behind the Premier League, LaLiga, the Bundesliga and Serie A, being mathematically closer to 6th placed Liga NOS than any of the top divisions. Shockingly, Ligue 1 has never been able to overtake the European elite once in the UEFA rankings in the last ten years.

There is also a gap when it comes to silverware. A Ligue 1 team has only won the Champions League once (Olympique Marseille in 1992/93). It´s miles behind LaLiga (18 Titles), the Premier League (13), Serie A (12), the Bundesliga (8) and even the Eredivisie (6) and the Liga NOS (4). French teams have only made it to a Champions League Final on 7 different occasions. To put that into perspective, Spanish teams have been to more Finals in the last 10 years alone (8). They failed to win a single Europa League and a Ligue 1 player has only won the Ballon d´Or once (Jean-Pierre Papin in 1991 for Olympique Marseille). In his tweet Mbappé celebrated two French clubs being in the semifinals of the Champions League which is quite ironic considering it´s the first time that ever happened! In the last 10 seasons, just 3 teams from France made it there, only 1 of which reached the final.

Football isn´t only about titles, but it doesn´t stop there. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a total of 47 Ligue 1 players represented their respective countries. Again, that is only the 5th highest amount after the Premier League (108), LaLiga (78), the Bundesliga (62) and the Serie A (58). French top-flight stadiums also have the lowest average attendances of the Top 5 according to "Statista". Ligue 1 also suffers from losing most of their top talent every year. Last season the likes of Nicolas Pépé, Tanguy Ndombélé and Nabil Fekir all left France to play elsewhere. This season Victor Osimhen, Gabriel Magalhães and Edouard Mendy joined big Clubs in other Divisions. In contrast to that, Clubs outside of PSG can´t afford to spend big money. Only two clubs have ever even spent transfer fees of over €30 million on a single player (PSG and Monaco). Comparing that to five clubs in the Bundesliga, six in LaLiga and Serie A and a staggering 17 clubs in the Premier League, it seems to be obvious why there might be a lack of quality players. What´s also interesting is, that Ligue 1 is the only division in the Top 5 that has kept a positive transfer balance over the last 10 years - despite PSG´s mega-transfers of Neymar and Mbappé for a combined €357 million.

Ligue 1 is without a doubt behind the European elite. A Farmers League? Definitely not. But it also hasn´t yet caught up to other Nations´ top divisions. It´s bizarre how France has a highly successful national team stacked with some of the best players on the planet but such a mediocre domestic League. France produces some of world football´s most gifted players but seems to fail to hold on to them. Most clubs in France outside of PSG don´t have the financial muscle to match the wages and transfer fees of the European elite and because of that, players leave the country to play elsewhere, weakening France´s top flight and strengthening rival leagues. Clubs, therefore, struggle to compete on the big European stages of the Champions League and the Europa League, which causes the league´s reputation to drop and makes it less attractive for superstars.    It´s a difficult cycle to get out of. However, there is a newfound optimism and the reasons for that are the effects of the COVID-crisis. Lorient president Loïc Féry told The Guardian in September earlier this year "I would be ready to take the bet that this trend is going to fade away over the years, because some of the most competitive European leagues - namely England and Germany - are probably going to see that their development of revenues will not be the same as before, meaning that there will be a catch-up effect." A new TV rights deal with Mediapro has been agreed to help the league close the gap. Broadcasting revenues for the next 4 seasons nearly doubled to €1.1 billion a year according to The Guardian. This makes Ligue 1 the division with the second-largest TV deal out oft he Top 5 only being second to the Premier League. There might be a lot of catching up to do but there is also tremendous potential and with recent success and a lucrative TV deal on their hands, not all hope might be lost for Ligue 1.

author: Dominik Plöchl