TThe return of football during the second half of 2020 following the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe in March has been more than a little surreal: no fans; goal posts disinfected at half-time; strange results; European competitions redesigned as international tournaments. However, the realities of the pandemic are now beginning to really affect us. The ambitious Lille project under owner Gérard López was the first major casualty in France this week, and it is more likely to follow. Perhaps the strangest thing is that Lille’s display in their goalless draw against PSG on Sunday night shows that crisis or not, they can still win Ligue 1.
Among the major European leagues, Ligue 1 is in a unique financial position. While other divisions resumed their halted campaigns in June or July and continued to enjoy major television deals to help offset the day’s lost revenue, French soccer twice achieved the big red button marked “self-destruction.”
French football authorities unnecessarily halted the 2019-20 season due to an alleged misunderstanding between UEFA and the Sports Minister, which robbed clubs of crucial television revenue. The LFP then failed to carry out due diligence on an incoming television rights agreement with Spanish broadcaster Mediapro. That hugely profitable arrangement, seen as a mitigating influence when it was halted last season, evaporated last week to leave the league without a national rights holder. Without ticket sales, a shortfall in TV money from last season and without a new TV partner so far, Ligue 1 clubs face real financial ruin.
While the Nimes president informed his players last week that the club would not be able to pay their salaries in March if a new deal could not be found, Lille was the first to be forced to change tactics. The Luxembourg businessman Gérard López bought the club in January 2017 and, superficially at least, managed to shape a model that was successful on the pitch and on the balance sheet.
In the style of Monaco, Lille became the epitome of a modern club in “The League of Talents”, as Ligue 1 was renamed last year. The precise search and development of young talent led to gigantic sales and, apparently, huge profits under the leadership of CEO Marc Ingla and transfer whisperer Luis Campos.
Since the 2017-18 season, Lille has made at least £ 112 million on the transfer market, second only to Lyon in Ligue 1 at the time. Forward Victor Osimhen joined Napoli this summer in a deal that could amount to £ 74 million and Gabriel moved to Arsenal for £ 27 million, a year after Nicolas Pépé’s £ 72 million contract with the same club. while Rafael Leão (Milan), Thiago Mendes (Lyon) and Yves Bissouma (Brighton) made around £ 20 million each in that time.
However, financial problems persisted. France’s notoriously strict financial watchdog DNCG banned Lille from signing players in January 2018. handed England a three-month suspended ban in May 2019 for allegedly providing false financial information about the club, and told Lille to increase 30 million euros in player sales during the summer of 2018 after threatening the club with relegation to Ligue 2 for financial irregularities.
Debt has been a concern for a long time. When López raised the funds to buy the club four years ago, he did so with loans of 225 million euros from JP Morgan and the investment fund Elliott Management. In the last four years, Lille has repaid around half of those loans, and 123 million euros will be repaid in August. Concerned that they would not receive the money they are owed, Elliott has pressured Lopez to sell the club. It appears that Merlyn Partners investors have taken over Elliott’s debt and installed former Rennes and PSG president Létang in Lopez’s place.
We use the term “seems” as Lille’s new ownership structure is still not entirely clear. The club’s new parent company, Merlyn Partners SCSp, is a special limited partnership based in Luxembourg of which we only know the identity of the general partner (Merlyn Partners GP), but not of the limited partners who remain anonymous. Létang said Monday: “Merlyn is a fund that wants to have a lot of confidentiality.” Another unresolved issue is whether England will continue to retain its stake in Victory Soccer. Létang says England will remain at the club at the moment “for the transition” and assured manager Christophe Galtier that he will not need to quickly fire players in January. Lille has become a merit of French football with its veteran Ligue 1 coach.
Since Galtier joined Lille on Christmas 2017, perhaps only Jürgen Klopp has proven to be more effective as a coach in Europe’s biggest leagues. He rescued the 2011 champions from a relegation battle and his balanced but positive style of football led Lille to the Champions League last season. This season, Lille have only lost one of their 16 Ligue 1 games and they dismantled the leader of Serie A Milan at San Siro in the Europa League. Over the weekend he held firm against PSG, who dominated possession but struggled to create plenty of clear chances in a disappointing match.
For now, miraculously, Lille leads Ligue 1 and remains economically viable, but changes are coming and sales are a must in the medium term. They could win the league, but be relegated soon after by the DNCG if they don’t repair their financial damage. Partly due to the league’s own incompetence, 2020 has been a financially disastrous year for Ligue 1, but 2021 could show that the scale of that disaster will be much greater than initially feared. Most worryingly, Lille will soon consider himself more fortunate than most.
Ligue 1 results
Ligue 1 results
Brest 2-2 Montpellier
Dijon 0-1 Monaco
Nantes 1-1 Angers
St Etienne 2-2 Nimes
Strasbourg 0-2 Bordeaux
Lorient 0-3 Rennes
Lille 0-0 PSG
Metz 2-0 lens
Marseille 1 – 1 Reims
Nice 1-4 Lyon
• Metz has been one of the main success stories of French football in 2020. Little more than a yo-yo club in the last decade, Metz ranks sixth in the 2020 calendar year form table. As it wins 2-0 this week about Lens surprise package and underlined an exciting Montpellier team, both Frédéric Antonetti and Vincent Hognon, who replaced Antonetti while taking care of his wife, who sadly passed away earlier this year, have made Metz organized and hard to beat. They have a versatile set of midfielders and, in John Boye, Dylan Bronn and Kiki Kouyate, they have one of the most efficient defensive units in France. With left field results persisting into these weirder years, European football is more than a dream for Garnets.
• Rennes 3-0 win over Lorient Breton Sunday afternoon was his third win in a row. Suddenly, Julian Stéphan’s team has the top four in sight. It seemed like the form that had led the club to the Champions League this season had evaporated during a streak of just one win in 13 games before this week, but now without the fatigue and intensity of European football, this young team will be a real threat in 2021. They are outsiders, but Rennes could soon join a close race for the title.
• We were devastated to learn of the death of an outfielder after the Lorient-Rennes game. The 38-year-old man, who worked as a volunteer, died in hospital after being injured in a freak accident at the stadium, where a light ramp fell on him. A team of members of the emergency service rushed to the scene, and players from both clubs also rushed out of the locker room in shock. Emergency services took the gardener to Scorff Hospital, where he died of his injuries. He was the father of three children. Lorient Mayor Fabrice Loher, who was in the stadium at the time of the accident, said: “It is a terrible accident. The Lorient Police Station police have marked the scene and an investigation is underway to understand the circumstances of the accident.
Ligue 1 table
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