The Seductive Allure of French Soccer
French soccer has held a special place in my heart ever since I first laid eyes on Sidney Govou. Now, for the first time I can recall, it has the chance to stand alongside Europe's footballing superpowers.
The first time I experienced French football was as a 10-year-old. Being born in the nineties, I had missed most of the lump-it-long-and-trudge of the English game. The version I was introduced to was graced by European hot shots, who added flair and finesse to the grit and passion of homegrown British footballers. One morning my dad had left Eurosport on after watching cycling or cross-country skiing, or something equally 'yer da', to go and cut the grass. They were showing highlights of the weekend's fixtures from Ligue 1.
I was immediately captivated. There were players with silver boots and spider web tattoos hitting footballs really, really hard at the goal. The frenetic pace the game was being played at was like nothing I had seen before – and I'd seen Mark Viduka bag a hat-trick against Charlton Athletic. I was used to watching Stephen Carr, David Dunn and Lee Carsley, completely unaware that there was an entire footballing universe filled with incredible kits and players with lightning bolts shaved into their heads. There was Sidney Govou – I'd never before been so excited to watch a man run around a football pitch. It didn't matter that he was stationed on the edge of the D, completely peripheral, inconsequential to the action unfolding around him, because he looked incredible doing it. Enthralled by the highlights, I had left my dad exasperated and angry, banging on the window, demanding I unplug the lawnmower from the inside socket. Sorry dad, not today pal. I'd just found out about Olympique Lyonnais, and they had a Brazilian bloke in red Predator Pulses scoring free-kicks from 45 yards. The front lawn would simply have to wait.
After the programme had finished, I was a changed man. No more Match of the Day for me. Shepherd's pie? Forget it, mum – coq au vin, s'il vous plait. I spent hours looking for a player with a white mohican in a blue-ish kit that I'd seen in incredibly low resolution on a video hidden in the extras menu of FIFA 2003. After exhausting my knowledge of dial-up internet forums and search engines, I finally found my man: it was Serbian forward Danijel Ljuboja. With 34 goals in 123 games for Strasbourg, he was neither prolific nor high-profile, but for some reason, in the incredibly limited customisation of FIFA 2003, the creators had decided to give him his very own hairdo. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen. I was hooked.
Historically, Ligue 1 has been overlooked as a top European competition. Consistently ranked below England, Spain, Germany and Italy, it is seen as a breeding ground or stepping stone for young exciting players, but not a final destination. The other leagues have all had their time in the sun: the romance of Italy in the nineties; both the Galactico and Messi/Ronaldo eras of Spanish football; England's run of four successive Champions League finalists in the mid noughties; and the all-German final of 2013, followed by Pep Guardiola's arrival in Munich. But the same cannot be said of France.
In spite of this, French teams have consistently performed well in Europe, and never more so than during my pseudo-footballing/pseudo-sexual awakening to Ligue 1. In 2004, Monaco, aided by on-loan Spanish striker Fernando Morientes, found themselves in the Champions League Final against Jose Mourinho's Porto. Monaco encapsulate the essence of French football more than any other side. A principality dripping with riches, there is perhaps no place more desirable to earn a living. Yet the style of play is at odds with the surrounding lifestyle: instead of meandering yachts and mid morning strolls in the sunshine, the club is consistently electrifying, dynamic, exciting.
That electricity has come to prominence again this season, with Ligue 1 sides getting more attention than ever before thanks to global social media and a streaming culture that allows us to watch any game unfold, anywhere on earth.
When a Qatari takeover at Paris Saint-Germain saw unrivalled funds pumped into the club, French football gained some leverage in attracting top talent. The takeover coincided with the arrivals of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore and Marco Veratti, as well as the totemic figures of David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Awash with riches and talent, PSG developed a monopoly in France, much like the Lyon side that secured seven successive Ligue 1 triumphs and captivated me as a 10-year-old. In Paris there were five consecutive titles, but there were also critics. Players who moved to PSG were seen to be cashing in and taking the easy option, instead of pushing themselves and furthering their careers in a more competitive league.
The nouveau riche Parisians attracted top names to the French capital. But this turned Ligue 1 into a forgone conclusion, and arguably diminished interest from further afield. Already down the pecking order of European leagues, France was now seen as another Scotland: one powerful team, a lot of whipping boys.
But this season has proved entirely different. Thanks to their forethought, extensive scouting networks and focus on young players, Monaco and Nice have gone toe-to-toe with PSG. The title is going right to the wire.
The free-scoring exploits of Monaco have seen them bag more goals than any other top flight team in Europe. They are not only doing the business domestically, but are also pulling up trees in the Champions League. Rarely has any team combined the fearlessness of youth with the composure that this side has shown. Looking back through recent footballing history, it's tempting to compare them with Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side of the nineties and noughties. They have Thomas Lemar (21), Bernardo Silva (22), Fabinho (23), Benjamin Mendy (22), and Tiemoué Bakayoko (22). But the jewel in the crown is the emerging Kylian Mbappé, who at just 18 possesses a devastating combination of explosive pace, slaloming dribbling and frightening composure. The youngster looks destined to become football's next superstar.
Should Monaco somehow defy the odds and reach the Champions League Final this season, there is a real chance that their success could act as a catalyst to build the profile and attraction of Ligue 1. The last time a French outfit won the competition was its inaugural season: in 1993, a Marseille side containing Marcel Desailly, Rudi Voller and Didier Deschamps overcame one of the greatest AC Milan teams in history, including Van Basten, Maldini and Baresi.
Ligue 1 has always held a special place in my heart, ever since I first laid eyes on Sidney Govou. And for the first time in my life, the tides may be turning in Europe. French football has the chance to stand alongside the superpowers and stake a claim to be included among them.
This article was originally published by The Football Pink. You can purchase their latest issue in print or digitally via their website.