Right now, Olympique Lyonnais is a club in crisis. They sit bottom of Ligue 1 after nine games, with zero wins. The dressing room is reportedly toxic, a problem that has followed the club for the past few seasons. Manager Laurent Blanc was sacked after just four games and replaced by Fabio Grosso, who has been neither popular nor successful.
The club’s struggles have made quite a few headlines, as OL was once one of the best teams in both France and Europe. However, while the severity may be surprising, the club’s struggles are not — they have been on a clear downward spiral for several years, with a few bright spots papering over the cracks.
This story is not unique to OL — it’s shared by many of France’s former elites. FC Girondins de Bordeaux and AS Saint-Étienne both went down in 2022 and are struggling to return to the top flight. FC Nantes has barely survived, avoiding relegation by one point last season and winning a playoff in 2021 on away goals. LOSC Lille and AS Monaco have both had close brushes with relegation. Ligue 2 and the Championnat National are littered with once-successful clubs.
It’s not uncommon to see big clubs falter. Leicester was relegated last season just seven years after winning the Premier League, while clubs like Espanyol, Schalke, and Brescia also have been sent down recently. However, it seems to happen far more in France than anywhere else — so why is that?
When the season was halted in 2020 because of the pandemic, leagues around the world took massive financial hits. Ligue 1 was among those that suffered the most. SportsPro Media labeled the losses in 2020/21 alone as over $1.5 billion as a result of empty stadiums, fewer transfer revenue, and — crucially — Mediapro, who owned the media rights to Ligue 1 games, pulling out of their agreement.
Mediapro was supposed to be the saviour of French soccer, offering a massive amount of money — reported to be around $1.3 billion a year — for media rights from 2020 to 2024. However, the pandemic led to huge financial losses for the company, which then started missing payments to Ligue 1. The deal was cancelled, leaving many clubs with perilous futures.
There is also the issue of Financial Fair Play, or FFP — designed by UEFA to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn and protecting clubs financially. Instead, it’s become completely useless, letting money-rich clubs like PSG (the one French club immune to financial problems) spend as much as they want. Meanwhile, clubs like Monaco or OL — which already have financial problems of their own — are forced to sell players to avoid punishment.
France’s high tax rates — which can climb as high as 45% — also mean that players can make much, much more money elsewhere, making bringing in star signings difficult/nearly impossible. That is a problem, since so many players leave these clubs in the first place, making bringing in replacements crucial.
And let’s face it: French players have always been a little more free-thinking than others. This notably was the case in the 2010 World Cup, when France’s players refused to train after Nicolas Anelka (himself a rebellious player) was sent home. This means that managers in Ligue 1 don’t appear to always get the same amount of respect as a manager in Italy or England, for example. Just ask Mamadou Sakho.
When you look at why Ligue 1 clubs start to struggle, a toxic locker room is almost always at the heart. Players and coaches at OL have long been rumored to not get along, as was the case with Saint-Étienne. Attacking midfielder Rayan Cherki, long touted as a future star, is on the fringes of the squad after issues with his manager. Add in pressure from France’s famously passionate fans, and things can go south very quickly.
Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing. Players who disagree and fight can push each other to improve and play better. French winger Franck Ribery famously got in a fight with Arjen Robben, and the two formed a long and illustrious partnership. However, in tough situations, tension in the locker room can cause problems.
Financial problems make it harder to offer high wages, which in turn means a lot of players leave for more lucrative leagues like the Premier League, but the Bundesliga also poaches quite a few players from France, too. Of course, there’s also always PSG to worry about, as OL would know — last season’s star winger Bradley Barcola made the move to PSG in the summer. OL also fell victim to the Bundesliga (Castello Lukeba) and Premier League (Romain Faivre) in the same transfer window.
Clubs that have been successful tend to attract younger players — like Bordeaux, OL, or Saint-Étienne — and can turn them into stars. The problem is that these players will often then switch clubs and are not properly replaced, which leads to constant turnover and a lack of stability. It’s no coincidence that last year’s runner-up in Ligue 1 was RC Lens, who have one of the oldest squads in the league — it’s easier to hold onto older players and build a strong core.
Unfortunately, this is not likely to change any time soon. The Premier League remains the dominant league when it comes to finances, and Ligue 1’s shrinking revenue and loss of qualification spots in Europe means that it will make it very hard to convince the best players to stay.
Image Courtesy of www.ol.fr.