It is the land of the world champions, but is it really a soccer country? That is the question that some in France have been asking this week while its European neighbors work to bring the sport back after the COVID-19 shutdown.
Debate has raged ever since Ligue 1 decided in late April to bring a premature end to the season with 10 rounds of matches unplayed.
By contrast, two weeks have passed since the Bundesliga restarted, while Italian Minister for Sport Vincenzo Spadafora on Thursday confirmed that Serie A would return on June 20, and La Liga and the English Premier League appear set to be back underway by then.
“Like Idiots” was the headline on the front of L’Equipe on Friday, as the sports daily questioned why such a hasty decision was made by France’s Professional Football League (LFP) to end the season.
The decision was based on French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe saying at the time that the season “cannot restart” as the pandemic raged, but France has been steadily easing its lockdown and Philippe said on Thursday that team sports could restart after June 21.
“We will be the only major footballing country in Europe to stick to this decision, and to have not conditioned it to the evolution of the pandemic and the easing of the lockdown,” Vincent Duluc of L’Equipe wrote.
France is not the only European soccer nation to have ended its season, with the Netherlands notably voiding the campaign altogether.
While Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) were crowned champions for the third year running, Amiens and Toulouse were relegated and have since launched legal action.
However, the leading voice against the early ending has been Olympique Lyonnais president Jean-Michel Aulas.
The Lyon side were seventh when the season stopped in mid-March and so were denied European qualification.
Neither they nor PSG are to have any competitive action before the UEFA Champions League is expected to restart in August.
“I am fully convinced that what has happened was not for the good of the clubs or French soccer as a whole,” Aulas told Le Parisien.
His chief argument has been economic. Earlier in May, the league said it would need a government-guaranteed loan of about 225 million euros (US$250 million) to tide over clubs affected by the loss in income from broadcasters, because so many games were left unplayed.
While France’s national team won the FIFA World Cup for the second time in 2018, most of its leading players aspire to play abroad and the ongoing debate raises the question of whether its domestic league belongs in the same category as its rivals.
While other countries that have been hit harder by the pandemic find ways to restart the season by promoting arguments about the game’s economic and cultural significance, in France there is a feeling that it just does not matter enough.
“Other countries have had interministerial meetings with important representatives from professional clubs, and they are restarting,” one Ligue 1 executive said. “In France there have been none of those meetings. From afar, you could conclude that the state is not really interested in soccer.”
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