French Fancies update: Lyon lead Marseille in Olympique race. But not tonight

There hasn’t been a French Fancies for a while. But it has been a lively spell. There has been the stunning collapse of Olympique de Marseille, champions the season before last and creditable competitors in the Champions League even as their league and Coupe de France form has sunk to rare depths, with only this weekend’s league cup final against Lyon to offer hope from the season (Stop Press: and they won it; with the only goal of a grim game, dominated by lots of falling over, abundant feigning of injury, cards galore and precious little movement).

Beaten 3-1 at home by the Ligue 1 leaders Montpellier last night, they have now stretched their winless run to 12 games. Sessegnon’s rumoured next club, Paris Saint-Germain again, were meant to run away with the league thanks to all that Qatari money but it simply won’t – yet at any rate – run to script. And now Olympique Lyonnais are looking towards the Gulf for heavy investment. Or are they? The signals are contradictory. But even without desert gold, Lyon are gradually returning to something like the form that brought seven successive titles. If Montpellier get in PSG’s way this season, what price Lyon – a great city, by the way – doing the same next season? Assuming Francois Hollande’s bash-the-rich plans don’t drive all the top players out of France in any case …

Here’s a piece I wrote about the business of French football for today’s edition of The National*, published in Abu Dhabi, which the Lyon owner sees as a possible source of a big cash injection …

When big business in the West finds ambition exceeding capital, the eyes have a habit of turning to the East. From banks to supermarket chains, exclusive hotels to ports, the attraction is the same.

It may not be surprising that football clubs – undoubtedly big business at the highest levels – see the sovereign wealth funds, especially those of the Gulf, as a means of helping them to compete at the highest levels.

A few clubs dotted around the major European leagues are pursuing success with renewed vigour as a result of Middle Eastern investment, notably from Abu Dhabi and Qatar. The group includes Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Malaga.

Even mighty Barcelona broke with tradition to sign a €170 million shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, the first time the Spanish side had accepted such payment.

And now, another big name has dropped heavy hints about hoping to join this exclusive club.

Olympique Lyonnais, better known as Lyon, is beyond question a giant of France’s Ligue 1. If not quite a slumbering giant, it has certainly been prone to dozing off a little since the end, in 2008, of a remarkable spell of dominance that brought seven successive championship titles.

In the three ensuing seasons, the trophy changed hands between Bordeaux, Marseille and Lille. As the current season nears its climax, Lyon are long gone from the European Champions League and again out of realistic title contention, 10 points behind the joint leaders Montpellier and PSG (Montpellier’s win at OM stretches that lead to 13 points over Lyon).

The names of those rivals are important: all with the exception of PSG are clubs with which Lyon can compete. But the huge injection of wealth that Qatari ownership has given the Parisians adds an entirely new dimension to presumptions of success and, of course, the riches and glory of European competition.

As Man City and PSG have discovered in their unsteady pursuit of the highest football honours in England and France, lavish investment does not necessarily result in overnight success.

City are now falling well behind their Manchester rivals, United, despite humbling them at their own Old Trafford fortress in a 6-1 romp in October. And PSG have been unable to open up a convincing gap ahead of the modestly funded Montpellier.

All the same, the received wisdom among football people is that results on the field do closely follow the level of resources available.

Man City and PSG, then, may be taking their time, sitting second top of their respective leagues at the start of this month instead of playing to script and running away with Premier and Ligue 1 titles. But they are still expected to come good, even if that takes another season and further changes of personnel.

So where does that leave Lyon? In a search, French commentators suspect, of a hefty new infusion of money to re-create something closer to the extraordinary era of 2002-2008 than a frantic race to finish high enough to be back in the Champions League next season.

Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president, let it be known this year that he would be visiting the Gulf last month to “achieve a number of exchanges in this area”.

When the visit, to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, took place, it was reported on the Lyon official club site. While Mr Aulas had a Middle Eastern subsidiary of his Cegid software group to launch, the leading French football broadcaster Hervé Mathoux was among observers in little doubt that Lyon’s interests were also firmly on the agenda.

Mr Mathoux mentioned Saudi Arabia, too, quoting Mr Aulas as saying: “I am one of those people who are interested in this part of the world.”

Mr Aulas is a rich man, Lyon’s majority shareholder with a 34.17 per cent stake. Selling the name of the planned new stadium, due to open in 2014, should yield €150m over 10 years. But neither Mr Aulas’s wealth nor routine sponsorship can give Lyon what Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed and Qatar have put at the disposal of Man City and PSG.

The Al Wahda defender Hamdan Al Kamali is on loan to Lyon and, during his visit to Abu Dhabi, Mr Aulas had talks with the club about the strides being made by the footballer. Some watching his reserve team and international displays believe he stands a good chance of making it into the first-team squad.

But investment was also on the Lyon chief’s agenda. No one expects Qatar to have an appetite for a second French club, but Mr Aulas said: “There are two other emirates who can afford to invest in a European club – Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”

One school of thought holds that with Man City in Abu Dhabi hands, and PSG owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a gentlemen’s agreement would deter those owners from buying rival clubs in the same league.

Against this theory are the persistent, if unsubstantiated, suggestions that Qatar has its heart set on owning Manchester United if only the American Glazer family would sell.

Mr Aulas insists he is not looking for a majority investor, and it is entirely possible that his business meetings after dealing with Al Kamali’s progress dwelt on Lyon sponsorship potential.

But in another interesting development, a prominent French business figure, Jérôme Seydoux, the owner of Pathé, recently increased his holding in Lyon to 29.9 per cent.

With this latest €1.6m share purchase, in other words, Pathé’s involvement has risen in two years from 22 per cent to the brink of the 30 per cent threshold at which a takeover bid would be obligatory.

Coincidentally, Mr Seydoux’s brother, Michel, president of another Ligue 1 club, Lille, is also reported in France to have his sights on overseas investment. His northern club lacks the glamour of teams based in the capital or the elegant third city, Lyon, but are the current French title holders.

The activity at Olympique Lyonnais led one financial writer, Sébastien Pommier, to question what was really going on.

Mr Pommier noted that Mr Aulas was a possible contender to become president of the French Football Federation when Noël Le Graët completes his term in December. “If JMA [Mr Aulas] still has the keys to the house of OL [Olympique Lyonnais],” he said, “the rise of Jérôme Seydoux could change this. Rumours about the arrival of foreign shareholders could be no more than a smokescreen.”

And all of these men of French football have a more pressing issue closer to home. After years of underachievement by French clubs, with the best players lured abroad by higher wages even when the national team was winning trophies, PSG’s resurgence, and its buying and paying power, have helped Ligue 1 to win back some respect.

But if, as expected, the socialist François Hollande, defeats Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election, French football may be hit hard by a threatened income tax of 75 per cent for earnings above €1m a year. The better players earn that in 10 weeks, even in France. Despite PSG’s riches, four of the five top-paid Ligue 1 footballers play for Lyon, while the best-paid, Eden Hazard, on €5.5m a year according to France Footballmagazine, plays for Lille.

With up to 150 players said to be vulnerable to Mr Hollande’s plan, the possible impact on French football is easy to imagine.

Whether it comes from the Gulf or elsewhere, huge additional investment would be needed to top up gross salaries to absorb the swingeing deductions and halt an exodus of stars unwilling to follow the lead of PSG’s record €42m buy, the Argentinian midfielder Javier Pastore, who told Le Monde newspaper: “If I have to pay it, I will.”

Colin Randall

* See the article as it appears at The National’s website …

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