Plus ça change? PSG aim to end France’s failure at European level

Can Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain end half a century of French underachievement at Europe's top level? TheFootballDiaries.com editor Stuart Coleman investigates...

Although Britain will always claim to be the cradle of the game, much of what modern football has to be thankful for originated in France. After football’s initial development and proliferation from the British Isles, the free-thinking French took up the baton and conceived some of what have become the very cornerstones of European and world football.

UEFA. FIFA. The European Championships. The World Cup. European Player of the Year. Each one of these world-famous competitions and organisations was formed either partly or, in the main, entirely by Frenchmen. Indeed, European football’s most-sought after, most valuable and most prestigious club trophy was, as you may have surmised, also created by a French football man, a visionary journalist and former player named Gabriel Hanot.  

Having heard reports of South America’s newly-formed continental competition, the exoticism-rich, brevity-poor Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones, Hanot set about creating an annual competition that would put the complacent Home Nations, who were thought to display a sense of entitlement over and disdain for their continental counterparts, in their place and prove without prejudice which club team was the continent’s best.

As Joao Baptista Martins scored the first European Cup goal for Sporting Lisbon against Partizan Belgrade in September 1955, Gabriel Hanot could scarcely have imagined the commercial behemoth his competition would become; nor could he have predicted the paucity of success that French teams would have to show for their endeavours almost 60 years later.

The giants of Madrid stole a march on the rest of the continent in collecting the first five competitions in a row, but French football showed it was far from the European backwater it is often considered today, with Stade de Reims displaying pluck and promise in making the final twice in the first four years (1956 and 1959).

1959: Ten-goal top scorer Just Fontaine takes on Madrid in Stuttgart

Sadly these appearances in the competition’s ultimate game were merely the French flattering to deceive. It would be almost two decades before any club from across the channel reached such heights again.

Before gargantuan sums of money were invested into football through television companies, the playing field of European football was a relatively even place (metaphorically, if not literally). This meant that great players often remained in situ with their club for years on end, thus allowing for a certain continuity and an almost dynastic level of success, with teams such as Ajax, Bayern Munich and AC Milan winning consecutive European Cup titles.

Les Verts of St Etienne, famous for their distinctive green jerseys, rose to prominence in France during the 1960s and went on to win eight French titles between 1964 and 1976. After many fruitless attempts, St Etienne finally reached the European Cup final in 1976, only to be dispatched by the mighty Bayern of Beckenbauer and Müller, who in beating them became the third of just three teams to win three European Cups in succession.

The desperate upset of the St Etienne players, who had spurned numerous chances during a closely-contested game, was felt across France, where a European Cup victory over German opposition would have cheered most French football fans. As the players sank to their haunches at Hampden Park, tears in their eyes, so began a European malaise that would last for a quarter of a century.

1976: Bayern celebrate the winner against St Etienne

Despite the brilliance of the national team during the 1980s, the clubs provided little encouragement; the best their teams could muster was Bordeaux and Monaco making some paltry quarter-final appearances. However, as the tumultuous decade drew to a close, a team was being constructed on the Mediterranean coast with a stated, focused aim of conquering Europe.

Marseille emerged under the stewardship of flamboyant club president Bernard Tapie to become one of the greatest sides French league football has seen. Boasting some of the world’s finest players, including Rudi Völler, Marcel Desailly and Enzo Francescoli, L’OM won four league titles in a row from 1989 to 1992 and it was from this foundation of domestic success that they would build towards their zenith, finally clinching Europe's top trophy – freshly rebranded the Champions League – in 1993.

After thrashing Northern Ireland’s Glentoran in their opening game and making their way past Dinamo Bucharest in the second round, Marseille progressed to the group stage at a time when the Champions League still contained solely Europe’s national champions. The winners of the two groups would meet in the final and, hard as it may now be to believe currently, Rangers pushed Marseille all the way in Group A, as the Frenchmen topped the group by a single point from their Glaswegian counterparts.

The team waiting for Marseille in the final was the formidable Milan side of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Franco Baresi, who had won every game and conceded only one goal on their way to the final. Despite their billing as underdogs, Marseille were robust in defence and, after going 1-0 up on 43 minutes through a Basile Boli header, played the rigid, disciplined, and notoriously defensive catenaccio system against one of the tactic’s most famous proponents. Try as they might, the frustrated Milanese could not find a way through and Marseille held on to win.

1993: Marseille celebrate victory over Milan

Although the extravagantly-gifted Marseille side had finally collected Europe's top trophy, after 38 years of French failure, the achievement was tainted in the years following the victory. It emerged that the club’s less-than-scrupulous then-owner Bernard Tapie had been involved in bribery: paying off two Valenciennes players before Marseille’s penultimate Ligue Un game allowed his squad to win the tile before the last game against arch-rivals PSG, thus leaving them in fine fettle for the Champions League final a week later against Milan.

Marseille were relegated and stripped of their Ligue Un title and although their Champions League victory still stands, the events surrounding the 1993 win have left a permanent mark over France’s only triumph in the competition they had created in 1955.

In the last decade, one team has dominated Ligue Un, in a run that both set incredible records of sustained success and stretched the boundaries of tedium, Olympique Lyonnais won seven consecutive Championnats from 2002 to 2008. Despite their all-consuming accomplishments domestically, Lyon were very much the England of the international club scene. Perennial quarter-finalists, with the odd expedition into semi-final territory, and the occasional victory over the elite (Real Madrid fell to Lyon three times in five seasons), Lyon never quite progressed to the highest echelons.

As representatives of Ligue Un in Europe, Lyon were consistent if unspectacular bastions of the last eight, but no more. Even during their domestic reign, they were outdone by the only French finalists of the last 20 years: AS Monaco.

It's hard to imagine now as a deflated Monaco languish in Ligue 2, but the glamorous Mediterraneans reached the showpiece final of the Champions League as recently as 2004. Unfortunately for Les Rouge et Blanc, Jose Mourinho was too busy elevating himself to the position of most sought-after coach in Europe with his all-conquering Porto side to allow the Champions League to slip through his fingers. In a disappointingly one-sided affair, the Portuguese champions systematically undid Didier Deschamps’ talented team, who had performed excellently in knocking out Real Madrid and Chelsea on their way to the final.

2004: Jerome Rothen, distraught in defeat

The heady heights Monaco had reached were soon forgotten however, as they subsequently became carried away with their European over-achievement and over-reached themselves financially, for which they paid a heavy price in suffering a painful relegation in 2011.

Indeed, Monaco’s 2004 final defeat helped to cement an already established, universally unwanted record: France has by far the worst finals-to-victory ratio of any country whose teams have made the European Cup final more than once. One solitary victory in six finals tells the tale of woe that has been French teams’ experiences at the concluding, vital stage of the continent’s elite competition.

Having wallowed in the abyss of mediocrity around the middle and bottom of Ligue Un during Lyon’s domination of the top flight in the 2000s, Paris Saint-Germain are desperate to redress their domestic failings and their distinct lack of appearances at Europe’s top table in recent years.

Since 2011, the investment of PSG’s uber-rich Qatari owners QIA has allowed one of France’s biggest clubs to acquire players and staff of the requisite pedigree to offer a significant challenge not just domestically, but in the moneyed world of the Champions League. With Carlo Ancelotti at the helm and a squad packed with big-name signings, including the press’s best friend Zlatan Ibrahimovic, €45m-man Lucas Moura and football’s international globetrotter and ceaselessly productive cash cow David Beckham, PSG are through to the upcoming round of 16 in the Champions League, having finished top of Group A with an impressive five wins from six games.

2013: PSG power through the group stage

Having drawn Valencia in the last 16, Ancelotti must be delighted that he has avoided the continent’s big guns. Indeed, the affable Italian with the rogue eyebrow mentioned after the draw that Valencia have “a few problems at the moment”.

Since that time, when Los Che were in a lowly 11th in La Liga, things have perked up a little; Valencia are currently doing a respectable job in fifth place. But with the Spanish side’s recent history of chronic financial difficulties, the nouveau-riche PSG, who sit proudly atop Ligue Un, are the team in form and must fancy their chances against the 2001 finalists.

Should PSG progress to the quarter-finals, it would be their first appearance at that stage of the competition since their semi-final appearance in 1995. Their chances of reaching the last eight are surely increased by the favourable draw: two of Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United will be knocked out in the last 16 as the Italians host the Catalans and Cristiano Ronaldo takes on his old club.

Could 2013 be the year that France ends its embarrassing wait for a second European Cup winner? Perhaps it’s unlikely. PSG have neither the technique of Barcelona nor the experience of Manchester United. That said, the French wannabes have a highly experienced and successful coach; a fanatical support wounded by years of under-achievement; and an arsenal of international players desperate to prove that they’re not simply collecting a hefty pay-packet while living the easy life of a Baudelairean wanderer, strolling through the stylish Parisian boulevards.

Leonardo welcomes Ancelotti

While Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich et al remain favourites for the Champions League this year, every season PSG qualify they will be swelling their ranks with an aggressive, bullish transfer policy and increasing their chances of breaking the cycle of failure. Carlo Ancelotti’s recently expressed dream of a PSG v. Milan final is no longer a risible notion of mere fantasy, as it certainly was just a few years ago, but a mouth-watering possibility that PSG fans are relishing.

What of the other French teams dreaming of European glory? Reigning champions Montpellier have neither the extremely wealthy benefactor nor the popular support necessary to provide the financial footing necessary to battle with Europe’s big guns. Bordeaux are one of France’s traditionally larger teams, who will be helped by their Stade Chaban Delmas expanding from 34,000 to 42,000 for Euro 2016, but the club will struggle to match the draw and financial muscle of Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain. Lyon failed to build European success upon their domestic domination, and since their Ligue 1 influence has waned there is no real reason to believe that their continental threat will increase in the near future.

It seems the only possible French threat to PSG is France’s best-supported club, Marseille. They have a huge fan-base, a newly-renovated 67,000-seat Stade Vélodrome ready for summer 2014, and a former league-winning manager Élie Baup who is improving quickly on his worrying record at previous club Nantes. L'OM could well be part of an unhappy alliance, as they and their arch-rivals from the capital launch a two-pronged assault on Europe’s greatest prize.

By Stuart Coleman, editor of TheFootballDiaries.com

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