A heavily reinforced Paris Saint-Germain will attempt to wrestle back the Ligue 1 title from surprise champions Lille when the new season begins this weekend in France with supporters set to return en masse but clubs mired in an economic crisis.
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Ligue 1 kicks off on Friday when Monaco play Nantes, a week before any of the continent’s other leading competitions.
The French game, though, is desperately struggling to keep up with its rivals in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, its clubs floored by the combined impact of the pandemic and a collapsed broadcast deal with Spanish company Mediapro.
Lille’s title triumph in May was remarkable and they deserved better than to win the league in an empty stadium, but last season in Ligue 1 was played out almost entirely behind closed doors.
This time full-capacity, maskless crowds will be allowed in from the opening weekend.
However, with the introduction in France of a Covid health pass, announced last month by President Emmanuel Macron, anyone attending games will have to provide proof of full vaccination, a negative coronavirus test or proof of having recently recovered from the virus.
Local authorities will still have the power to impose restrictions on crowds as France fights a surge in cases caused by the Delta variant but the promise of a return of supporters in large numbers points to more uplifting times ahead.
“I really hope in our next match we will be able to play in front of a full stadium,” Marseille’s Valentin Rongier said after 30,000 fans filled the Velodrome to half its capacity for a friendly against Villarreal.
“The energy they provide pushes us on. That’s what we play for. Last season was so much harder without the supporters.”
– Ligue 1 in financial crisis –
Following the Mediapro fiasco, which saw a record four-year broadcasting deal turn to dust inside four months, Amazon agreed to pay 250 million euros ($296m) a year to broadcast the majority of Ligue 1 matches.
However, the LFP has since found itself embroiled in a legal battle with Qatar-owned beIN Sports and domestic pay TV giant Canal Plus over a deal worth 332 million euros annually to show the remaining two games per week, a sum the two broadcasters no longer want to pay.
Given that backdrop, it is little wonder most French clubs have been unable to spend big in the transfer market.
The situation is desperate according to the man in charge of the DNCG, French football’s financial watchdog.
“Most clubs are unlikely to survive the season unless their owners pump massive amounts of money in,” Jean-Marc Mickeler said recently.
Six-time champions Bordeaux were already close to bankruptcy before being bought last month by Luxembourg-born businessman Gerard Lopez, previously the owner of Lille.
– Ramos, Donnarumma arrive –
PSG, with the backing of Qatar, are of course an exception as they look to reclaim a crown they won seven times in eight years before last season.
They have signed veteran Real Madrid centre-back Sergio Ramos, Liverpool and Netherlands midfield star Georginio Wijnaldum and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma — the best player at Euro 2020 — on free transfers.
They also paid a reported 60 million euros to sign flying full-back Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan.
Coach Mauricio Pochettino has extended his contract until 2023 but one man who has not extended is Kylian Mbappe — his contract is now in its final year.
Lille’s triumph last season means a PSG title success cannot be taken for granted, but the contenders are hardly lining up.
Lille have lost their brilliant coach Christophe Galtier to Nice while goalkeeper Mike Maignan has gone to AC Milan.
Galtier’s replacement Jocelyn Gourvennec was an underwhelming choice for many supporters.
Lyon have a new coach in Dutchman Peter Bosz and have lost star player Memphis Depay to Barcelona.
Despite huge debts, American owner Frank McCourt has backed a big recruitment drive at Marseille but perhaps the most realistic threat to PSG will come from the Cote d’Azur.
Monaco will hope to build on last season’s third place under Niko Kovac while along the road Galtier could make ambitious Nice –- owned by British group Ineos -– real challengers.