By the time the final day of the January transfer window had arrived, lovers of French football were understandably quite concerned.
January had been a damaging month for French football. It had seen several of Ligue 1’s most talented up-and-comers leave for pastures new abroad. And it had all happened so quickly.
In just a few short weeks Le Championnat had been plundered by clubs in traditionally stronger leagues, with several of the division’s top performers poached. The most prolific offenders were Premier League side Newcastle United, who signed no fewer than five Ligue 1 players during the 31 days the transfer window was open – most notably Montpellier title-winner Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
While many of these transfers represented good business for both the buying and selling clubs, for fans of the game in France, it was undoubtedly disappointing to see so many talented players leave simultaneously. It was therefore natural that when deadline day arrived, there was a fear even more stars would leave. But Ligue 1 followers were in for a surprise. The league was not only about to acquire a talented player – but a footballing superstar.
On the morning of January 31, Paris Saint-Germain announced they would be holding a press conference later that day. Rumours circulated that one of the most recognisable faces in football was joining the club. A few hours later, it was confirmed. David Beckham was signing for les Parisiens on a five-month deal. It was huge news for PSG, perhaps more on a commercial level than from a footballing perspective.
With the signing of Beckham, Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) had seized the media’s attention and thrust PSG into the spotlight yet again. Journalists from Britain and across Europe rushed to Paris to see Beckham’s first press conference as a PSG player. After all, that is what the 37-year-old’s arrival in French football is all about: exposure for PSG.
QSI are no strangers to the fact Beckham will attract a new worldwide fan base to the club; he will help sell shirts and he will help enhance the club’s reputation. The very fact Beckham’s wages will be donated to a local children’s charity is one example of the immediate positive press the club and player have received. Marketing-wise, the signing is a coup for PSG.
On a footballing level too, Beckham will be important for the team. He may be nearing 40 but he is still a classy player who will be expected to help the current league leaders win the title this season, starting with his possible debut against Marseille on Sunday.
Aside from his famous set-pieces, Beckham will be expected to act as a leader on and off the pitch. QSI know Beckham can pass on his vast experience playing at some of Europe’s biggest clubs – Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan – to the younger players in the squad. Players such as Marco Verratti and Lucas Moura – both just 20.
Indeed, Lucas called Beckham “a football icon” and “a star, both on and off the pitch”, insisting that PSG would benefit by gaining ‘visibility’.
Beckham may not play for the full 90 minutes every week, but there is no doubt PSG have yet again signed a player who has boosted interested not only in PSG, but also the league in general.
But what kind of championship has Beckham walked into? PSG may be playing their part in helping to increase the appeal of Ligue 1 outside France, but it is still not enough. French football’s top flight is still predominantly a selling league – as the winter transfer window demonstrated.
Along with Yanga-Mbiwa, Lille’s Mathieu Debuchy, Toulouse’s Moussa Sissoko, Nancy’s Massadio Haidara and Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran all joined Newcastle’s French revolution.
Marseille striker Loic Remy also decided to swap France for England, signing for relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers.
Then there were those who chose to go further afield, with last season’s joint top-scorer Nene moving to Qatari club Al Gharafa, and Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila signing for Russian side Rubin Kazan.
Others completed loan moves away from France. Lyon’s Michel Bastos swithced to German side Schalke on an 18-month deal, while PSG defender Diego Lugano moved to La Liga outfit Malaga until the end of the season.
Several other players came close to leaving, but ultimately remained. Saint-Etienne, for example, rejected offers for in-demand forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, while Lyon’s Lisandro Lopez, Bafetimbi Gomis and Yoann Gourcuff were all touted with moves away from Stade Gerland.
Some of these players, such as Nene, were expected to leave in January, so their departure did not come as much of a surprise. But what was disappointing for French football fans was that so many of Ligue 1’s young talents were keen to leave France during this transfer window rather than finish the season with their clubs.
Yanga-Mbiwa’s acrimonious split from Montpellier was an example of just that. The central defender’s desire to quit the league champions resulted in president Louis Nicollin branding the 23-year-old ‘an ass’ for choosing Newcastle, a club which in the outspoken president’s mind was not ‘a good choice’ for the France international.
“He [Yanga-Mbiwa] will get himself moved on next year, but it doesn’t bother me,” Nicollin told L’Equipe.
“We’re not going to cry,” Nicollin added. “His head was no longer at Montpellier, but it’s not a problem. He’s not irreplaceable. The important thing is that we get some money in.”
Although it is understandable that some players would want to leave France for countries such as England – and the chance to play in one of the most competitive and exciting leagues in the world, but Yann M’Vila’s move to Russia left some fans scratching their heads. After all, the 22-year-old France international had previously been linked with the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal, before signing for Rubin Kazan – a team who finished sixth in Russia last season.
One positive of the winter transfer window was that it also enhanced France’s reputation abroad of producing quality players. Indeed, Marseille midfielder, Joey Barton, seemed to think the same when he tweeted: “Looks like French league has more quality than people think. Great to see the exports settling in to the Premier league.”
He added: “This league doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Consistently producing players that go all over Europe and succeed.”
Sissoko demonstrated just that when he scored two goals on his home debut to steer Newcastle to a much-needed 3-2 victory against European champions Chelsea in early February.
French newspaper L’Equipe drew attention to Newcastle’s new French contingent in jest when they published the headline “Neufch‚teau renverse Chelseaî (Newcastle overturn Chelsea) on their front page following the game.
Yet while foreign clubs such as Newcastle are benefiting from their new French recruits, it is undeniable that the exodus of players in January has weakened Ligue 1 in the short and long term.
How can Le Championnat develop and become one of the most competitive in the world if France’s most talented players continue to leave? Yes, PSG are attracting some of the best foreign players to Ligue 1, as shown by the signing of Beckham and others preceding him such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the ideal future for the league would be to see more homegrown talent choosing to stay in France, and to see clubs such as PSG conducting more of their business within French borders.
Whether or not that will happen is another matter. Yet, despite the exit of a number of players in January, there is still much to be positive about.
Several clubs used the winter transfer window to buy well and bolster their squads. Lille were just one example as they signed 20-year-old Florian Thauvin from Bastia, beating Newcastle for his signature at the same time.
Marseille were another club who recruited well as they brought in Foued Kadir from Valenciennes, Alaixys Romao from Lorient and Modou Sougou from CFR Cluj.
In fact, there are still many talented youngsters left in the French top flight who have already begun making a mark on the league. Yassine Benzia, Rachid Ghezzal and Samuel Umtiti – who scored a wondergoal in Lyon’s 2-1 Europa League loss to Tottenham Hotspur last week – are all names to remember. Indeed Lyon boast other, more established, young talent such as 22-year-old Clement Grenier, 21-year-old Alexandre Lacazette and 21-year-old Gueida Fofana – all of who scored in the club’s 4-0 hammering of Bordeaux at the weekend.
But Lyon are not the only club to possess promising players. Rennes forward Axel Ngando (19) and Lille attacking-midfielder Divock Origi (17) made their debut on matchday 23 and went on to score vital goals, which helped their respective clubs salvage crucial points.
Ryad Boudebouz (23) is another player who proved to be important for his team, when his influential performance helped Sochaux claim a 3-2 shock win over PSG at the weekend.
The very fact that in the days following the close of the transfer window promising players such as Ngando, Origi and even Sochaux’s Edouard Butin scored goals for their clubs shows that Ligue 1 fans need not be too concerned, for French football is already looking to the future.