If France is so good, why is Ligue 1 so bad? The weird world of French football

Twenty-four teams in total have grappled for three weeks over the grassy chessboards of France. By July 10th, only one of these countries will remain, hoisting the Henri Delaunay Trophy up toward the blackened sky of Saint-Denis. Heading into the tournament, dreams of glory were certainly most attainable for five traditional powerhouses of world football. Yet, as the 2016 UEFA European Championship advances to the semifinals, only two remain–and only one will advance to the final game. These five legacy teams to which I refer are England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. However, one of these things does not belong.

Umtiti (R) is one of many who’ve made their name in Ligue 1 before moving elsewhere. (Photo by PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

As the tournament advances into the knockout stages, it is interesting to take a demographic study of the main characters. Two-time reigning Euros champion Spain were knocked out in the round of 16 by Italy. Out of all of Spain’s starters throughout the tournament, 8 out of 11 play in La Liga (talk about impressive lineup consistency). Italy, in turn, were felled by Germany in the quarterfinals. Out of Italy’s total starters, 15 out of 20 (including Giaccherini, on loan at Bologna from Sunderland, and Immobile, on loan at Torino from Sevilla) play in Serie A (talk about impressive lineup depth). As Germany await their semifinal engagement with France, 9 out of their 14 starters so far come straight from the Bundesliga. England, shockingly banished by the upstart (and very, very small) Iceland, featured a whopping 17 out of 17 starters participating in the Premier League.

And then there is France. The hosts and pre-tournament favorites (odds were equal with Germany) feature a staggering 1 out of 16 starters plying their trade in Ligue 1 (the 1 being Blaise Matuidi with Paris Saint-Germain); also of note is André-Pierre Gignac of Tigres UANL–surely the lowest-prestige club with a starter in one of these five teams. I repeat, 1 out of 16!!

Griezmann’s ‘hotline bling’ celebration. At least the French don’t copy everything off of Iceland. (Photo by PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

One’s inquisitive mind may be so inclined as to wonder about this strange disparity. Why do almost no French footballers play pro domestically? Heck, why is Ligue 1 such an afterthought in world football? What are the consequences for France? What does it all mean? Does it even mean anything? Comparing France to other countries may give us the answer that we seek.

Sadly, as great as France’s football history is–winner of the 1998 World Cup, two European Championships (’84, ’00), and two Confederation Cups (’01, ’03)–the status of France’s top flight is one of very low prestige. The country’s domestic league closely resembles a barren field ravaged many times over by the paws of the rich, powerful, and shady owners of one of the most of the elite football clubs in the current world.

In one way, France is like Germany. Most German club teams are not very good. Of course, there is one exception: the great Bayern Munich. Similarly, PSG has begun to dominate Ligue 1 by miles. Both leagues are like feudal lands with a small privileged class of overlords. Every few years a new challenger may arise with a stiff challenge, but usually the Kings come out on top.

But why do a majority of German starters still come from within the Bundesliga, while a majority of French starters come from outside Ligue 1? Bayern Munich is one huge reason. They have the prestige, stability, and money that attract top “local” talent. PSG, with their new money, may have the latter, but lack both of the former.

Another hypothesis is that top players are more attracted to more competitive leagues. Intentionally or not, these leagues help improve their skills, while less challenging leagues may keep a player from reaching his potential or even from staying the least bit sharp. Though the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 feature singularly dominant teams, the lower teams of the Bundesliga are significantly better than those of Ligue 1. It is then possible to say that France having a lower numbers of starters in Ligue 1 counterintuitively helps France just as much as having players in the Bundesliga helps Germany.

The majority of the German players ply their trade in the Bundesliga. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Yet, in another way, France is like the Netherlands. Both Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie are brimming with younger, unpolished players often ripe for picking by the big clubs. The Eredivisie is a shell of its former self, just like the Netherlands football team. In 2015, the famous innovators of football shockingly failed to qualify for the current Euros.

Why did the Netherlands fail? A quick glance at some of the starters from the Netherlands’ most recent friendlies shows a decent selection hailing from the Eredivisie, where low quality teams comprise much of the league. Following the example of Germany, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, maybe the poor quality of competition in the Netherlands has been a contributing factor to the recent failure of the Oranje. If true, then it is definitely good for France to have as few players as possible from Ligue 1.

One final argument could be made that increased exposure to other cultures and systems can improve creativity and flexibility; thus, developing better players overall. The exchange of knowledge surrounding soccer, concurrent with the increased globalization throughout the 20th century, has largely shaped the game as it is played today. England may be very negatively impacted by having all of their starters play for domestic clubs. On the other hand, France may be benefitting greatly from their team of wanderers.

Whether designed or organically driven, the anomalous makeup of the French national team may bode very well for France’s future. Having an impressively few number of starters playing in Ligue 1 makes it possible for France’s top team to play in more competitive environments and with more ranges of experience, allowing them to become better players and a better overall team. Though it hurts Ligue 1’s quality and might look funny on the lineup sheet, France may very well have found a new magic formula for winning.

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