Friday, January 25, 2008
Little men walking tall
Nicolas Sarkozy may have shown an unhealthy haste in alienating many who voted for him just a few months ago, but Président Sarko has struck a blow for the petit Frenchman following media revelations that the nano-politician had most likely tied the knot with the eye-pleasing former-model-cum-songstress Carla Bruni after a whirlwind three-month courtship.
'Hope springs eternal,' thought your average pint-sized Kronenbourg-swilling Monsieur on the street, and it seems the phenomenon is infectious with even the blue-collar clubs of Ligue One gatecrashing the black-tie soirées of the habitual élite.
Lyon aside, all but the discerning connoisseur of French football will raise an eyebrow at some of the vaguely familiar names which have smuggled their way into the nation's top ten.
A mere quartet of the sides that finished in the top ten last season currently occupy one of those berths - namely Lyon, Bordeaux, Monaco and Marseille - with a hefty helping of the traditional Goliaths having, like a dummy in Carlos Tevez's shorts, been pushed down to the nether regions by the Davids - or the 'Nicolases,' if you like.
This is bad news for the powerbrokers of Ligue Un itself as they look to hike up the contract agreed with TV companies to Premier League proportions, and with the 'faces' such as PSG and Marseille currently as attractive as a baboon's behind, their hand is considerably weakened, but it is perhaps a situation they should have been predicting.
The trend in France in recent years has been increasingly toward a league tighter than a cricketer's jockstrap - this season's situation is just a natural progression of that.
The restart after the Christmas break saw a new record established with just ten points separating fourth place from 17th. A remarkably small gap, but it is only a point and two points less than the previous two seasons respectively, and means that the margin between success and failure is smaller than it has ever been, leaving the door open for consistent if not spectacular sides to muscle their way into the limelight.
Caen, currently sixth, are a case in point. Promoted from Ligue Deux last season, the homely Normandy club with a squad featuring names which could be described as 'household' only within the confines of their own living-rooms were predictably propping up the division with a Derby County-esque four points from their first nine games.
An admittedly impressive run in the nine games prior to Santa's arrival - which included a 5-0 thrashing of Larry 'Laurent Blanc' White's Bordeaux - was enough to see them end the year at the inhabitual altitude of fourth, something Paul Jewell is hardly even likely to be dreaming about, never mind able to do.
One explanation for this is, inevitably, cash. While the method distributing TV money is largely the same as it is in England - 50% shared equally and the rest carved up based on final league position - the divergence in Ligue One budgets is not on the scale of the Grand Canyon-esque gulf between the haves and the have-even-mores of the Premier League.
Nearly half the league - from Lorient's Euros23m to Nancy's Euros30m - have virtually the same annual budget. That inevitably means they are in the market for the same calibre of player, so it is no surprise they produce a similar standard of football.
However, the hard-nosed economic reality of modern-day football would normally mean more than just four of the top ten budgets - Lyon, Bordeaux, Monaco and Marseille again - would feature in the top ten of the table, and that PSG and Marseille, third and second respectively in the budget list behind Lyon, would be permanent fixtures at the business end.
The truth is though that Lyon, almost universally unpopular in France, are the country's only genuinely 'big' club. The emergence of the supposedly smaller sides is as much a tribute to their work on and off the pitch as the failure of Marseille, PSG and Saint Etienne - another of France's best-loved clubs - to accept they are no longer the 'big' clubs that they, the media and a nostalgic public think they are.
Despite, or probably more as a result of owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus coughing up more than ¬200m of his pocket money on the likes of Bolo Zenden and Djibril Cissé, Marseille are light years away from the side that won the European Cup in 1993; PSG are similarly a some Captain Kirk-esque distance from the XI that boasted Rai, Leonardo and George Weah in the 1990s; while St Etienne - fondly known as 'les Verts' or 'the Greens' - have done as much for the environment as any by limiting their carbon footprint to largely domestic travel since they reached the 1976 European Cup final.
Tellingly, a recent evaluation of the Ligue One club presidents in sports daily L'Equipe saw the head honchos of those clubs all involved in the 'relegation dogfight,' while those sitting in somewhat less palatial boardrooms in Nancy, Lorient, Le Mans and Valenciennes were patted very publicly on the back.
While Marseille and PSG have squandered millions and spent even more time hiring and firing a phalanx of coaches and club presidents, the lesser lights having quietly been establishing themselves as well-organised clubs both on and off the pitch based on values largely forgotten in the instant success-driven post-Bosman world.
Arsenal, Manchester United and in the opposite sense, Newcastle United, have shown the importance of stability in creating success, and it is a leaf that has been carefully taken out of their book, pressed into a grubby copy of Le Monde and transported over the Channel.
Caen boss Franck Dumas, for example, spent nine years as a player at the club and has been in his current job since 2004, Lorient's Christian Gourcuff is in his second spell at the club after a first stint which endured a decade, while Pablo Correa, boss at Nancy, the great success story of the season so far, was a player at the club for several seasons before taking over the first team in 2002.
It remains to be seen whether those men can translate what they have done in familiar surroundings elsewhere - in much the same way as Auxerre doyen Guy Roux appeared incapable of working at Lens - but their intimate knowledge of their workplace, like Roux, means they have moulded squads tailor-made for their respective clubs.
A quick glance down the squad lists shows a host of 'loyal servants,' such as Nancy's Frederic Biancalani, who left Walsall to return to Lorraine in 2002, and when they have opted for players with higher profiles, they have again chosen well in snapping-up experienced Ligue One veterans, internationals from the second-tier nations or, like Arsène Wenger with his French connections, used their own personal networks to pluck gems from the backwaters.
Lilian Laslandes - remember him Sunderland fans? - is still scoring for Nice, his fifth French club; while Southampton and Sheffield United may not have wanted Djamel Belmadi and David Sommeil, but they are still gainfully employed by Valenciennes, as is Morocco and ex- Fulham centre-back Abdeslam Ouaddou; Nancy - who have yet to sign a new player since the end of last season - have another Moroccan international, Youssef Hadji, the little brother of former Villa and Coventry midfielder Mustapha, while Uruguayan Correa has exploited his South American contacts to unearth handy Brazilian forward Kim.
The lack of funds available has also meant France's lesser lights have had to work harder with formation - the grooming of young players - something which Marseille and PSG seem to have just grasped the importance of.
The crème de la crème of those programmes are key to their current success, such as Nice keeper Hugo Lloris, Caen's attacking midfielder Yoan Gouffran - the latest raw talent of a production line which has given us William Gallas, Jérôme Rothen and Mathieu Bodmer - and Nancy's Moncef Zerka, who has forced his way into the Moroccan national side.
While young players have gleefully stepped-up to plug holes, so too have players who - but for the financial strait-jackets their coaches find themselves in - would forever have been left in the footballing shadowlands.
This is particularly true at Nancy where the name of imposing centre-back Sebastien Puygrenier has been mentioned in the same sentence as the words 'French national squad,' and though Valenciennes striker Steve Savidan has as much chance of playing at Euro 2008 as David Trezeguet, is hitting the net on a regular enough basis to show his feat of finishing second top scorer in Ligue One last season, his first in the top flight, was no fluke.
The other side of the coin, quite literally, means that should the fates turn against them the small squads could, like a bulimic model, be quickly reduced to the bare bones should injuries pile up, while their heavy reliance on African internationals may see them struggle as the African Cup of Nations deprives them of their matchwinners.
However, though Sarko may actually refrain from restoring the monarchy - for the moment at least - the little man in France is king.
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