To celebrate the grand opening of the new Paris Nord-St Pancras train line, French TV channel Canal + launched, during my recent visit to Paris, a "Semaine Anglaise": London on a plate for a week. From the breakfast show to the late night news, most of the channel's programs, including special guests and features, dealt with England. It started brightly, with "Allons donc à London" in which Antoine de Caunes, the trendy frenchy vamped down as Pete Doherty, delights in finding lunatics and eccentrics such as that militant who camps out in front of the Parliament to voice his opposition to British involvement in Iraq. Londres wouldn't be London without music, and Sir Paul Mc Cartney's concert at the Olympia (last October) will be broadcast on Friday at 10.30 pm.
"Canal + is Rich", undoubtedly so. Through TV rights, the channel provides around 50% of French football clubs' income, transfers excluded. In other words, gates receipts only make up a measly 15% of that income. Like Canal +, that set its clocks on London time, French football would do well to take a few leaves out of the Premier League's accounting books and also try to understand how its own national team's success brought about its national league's demise.
By regularly losing its star players, the French Ligue 1 has lost its attractiveness. So called "big games" between Lyon, Marseille, or Paris SG (the last OL-OM being the exception that proves the rule) don't have the intensity of the Italian derbys, of the Real-Barca classico, or of the duels at the top of the English League. Neither Sky Sports nor the Italian Rai broadcast any of the Ligue 1 matches. Meanwhile Arsenal-Manchester United got a billion people glued to their TV sets, eager to watch Rooney, C.Ronaldo, Giggs, Gallas and Fabregas slug it out. The programme notes read like credits for a movie in which the players have taken on the actors' role in people's hearts.
The mystical dimension of Italian football was highlighted by Dino Bazzatti after the Superga disaster. In 1949, the novelist declared that the crash of a plane loaded with famous writers would not have moved his compatriots quite so deeply. Obviously, the dangers of such an excess of enthusiasm are clear, as recent events in Italy have confirmed. However, in contrast with latin excesses, British moderation has proved that the fortunes of an endangered championship could be turned around. After doing a meticulous cleaning job to improve safety in their stadia, the English invested close to 1.5 billion Euros (if it wasn't for the fact that they insist on calling them Pounds) to turn their sporting arenas into profit centers where fans splash their cash.
Conversely, the French missed out on the unique opportunity presented by World Cup 98 to renovate their infrastructure sufficiently. Today, le Stade de France is the only stadium deemed fit to host a Champions' League final. In order to compete with great European sporting nations, it is absolutely essential for France to modernise its football venues. Nearly all stadia in the country belong to local authorities, which hinders their development. It would be necessary to combine public financing with brand sponsorship deals like Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, but some are still reluctant. "I can't imagine Sochaux's Stade Bonal being called Stade "Mobil". For his part in the résistance, Auguste Bonal was executed by a firing squad shortly before the end of the war. I will not sell my soul," declared the Chairman of Sochaux Football Club.
Certainly, Lyon is the exception. But in the long run, if Jean-Michel Aulas, their president and Ligue 1's main agent provocateur, keeps on selling his best players, he runs the risk of seeing his team play in a bigger stadium, but to a smaller crowd. The players' exodus and the talent drain must be checked if not stopped entirely. In the last two years, Lyon lost Essien, Diarra, Malouda, and Abidal; Marseille lost Drogba and Ribery, amongst others. The total amount of last summer's transfer fees approaches the 200 million Euro mark. Now the clubs are wondering how long they will be able to hold on to Benzema, Ben Arfa or Nasri, what with Real Madrid, Barça and Inter Milan already waving their chequebooks. A league can only be popular if the people who actually go to the games can watch their internationals wearing the local colours.
The French league can make up lost ground by multiplying growth leverages and, like the Premier League did, by acknowledging simple economic truths and reducing charges in order to offer players more attractive salaries.
It would be naïve to deny that economics dictate the rules of professional sports. Norman Mailer wrote of his passion for "ransacking innocence", to make the point that naïveté no longer has a place in the modern world of television and high-capital media. Having built its reputation on cinema and football, Canal + had a great opportunity to use its "English Week" to boost motivation for a transformation that the channel would be first to benefit from: a special show analysing the achievements and success of the "Barclays League", for example. If France fails to learn from the English, the Eurostar will transport ever increasing loads of young French players towards their final destination: St Pancras, in the very heart of London.