Lower leagues across the globe #5: France
For the fifth part of The Seventy Two’s series looking at lower leagues in other countries, we make another quick dart across to the continent – this time paying a visit to the beautiful country of France. Andrew Gibney of Gib Football Show fame is your guide for a tour of life outside Ligue 1.
You very often hear the term “yo-yo club” in association with the gap between a country’s top flight and its lower divisions. The step up in class can be too much and promoted teams go straight back down. In France, however, this is not usually the case. In the last ten years, clubs have shown that, with the right organisation and a sensible plan in place, it is possible to be successful.
This season, Brest have shocked everyone. After gaining promotion back to the top flight for the first time since 1991, they have not only consolidated their place in Ligue 1 but, for a few weeks, sat top of the league. Not something you would find in Spain or England.
The competitive nature of France’s second division seems to be the ideal catalyst for teams wanting to make the move up to Ligue 1. In the last ten years, 24 different teams have gained promotion from Ligue 2 and, amazingly, twelve of those teams can still be found in Ligue 1 today.
The league’s current format has twenty teams fighting it out for three automatic promotion places. It was back in 2002 when four teams were promoted to the newly branded Ligue 1. That season, only two teams were relegated from the second tier so that Ligue 2 would continue to consist of 20 teams.
The bin man
It is fascinating to see quite a number of success stories around the league, as clubs make their way up from the amateur divisions and build from there. Valenciennes FC is a fantastic example of this. Under the guidance of chairman and politician Francis Decourrière they made the transition from being an amateur outfit to Ligue 1 in just three years.
Taking over the club in 2004, Decourrière and manager Daniel Leclerq guided VA to the National, or Division 3, Championship. Once in Ligue 2, the managerial reins were passed to Antoine Kombouare and he didn’t disappoint, winning the title in his first season and guiding his side to Ligue 1. It was the first time in the history of French football that a club was won both divisions in successive years.
During the club’s meteoric rise, it also saw a player create a similar fairytale story late in his career. It was 2003 and Steve Savidan was playing for AS Angouleme in the third tier of French football. Because of his club’s amateur status, Savidan had to work as a bin man to earn some extra money. In the summer, aged 26, he signed for Valenciennes, also in the third tier. Savidan’s 19 goals earned them promotion and suddenly he was a professional footballer.
A very successful season in Ligue 2 saw Savidan score 16 goals and his team win their second promotion. Steve Savidan had gone from bin man to Ligue 1 striker in two years. He didn’t let this chance slip, helping his team finish in 17th place, securing a second season in Ligue 1. His thirteen goals were enough to finish only second behind Pauleta of PSG in the scoring charts and this triggered a €5m move to Caen and Savidan’s one and only France cap.
After a season with Caen, his goals weren’t enough to keep the Normandy club up and Monaco came in with €5m to take Savidan to the principality. During the routine medical, doctors found that the striker had recently developed a cardiac abnormality. Taking medical advice, Savidan retired.
The plight of Grenoble
Unfortunately, it’s not all bright lights and fairytales in Ligue 2. Grenoble Foot 38 currently find themselves rock bottom of the table and look to be in trouble. It was only last season they were rubbing shoulders with Marseille and Lyon in Ligue 1. However, Grenoble have not only found themselves in trouble on the pitch, but with the banks too.
All Ligue 2 clubs must adhere to the same strict financial guidelines as their Ligue 1 counterparts. Their finances are examined by an independent body with penalties handed out if they do not balance the books. In charge of these checks are the Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion, or DNCG.
The DNCG tend to make sure clubs do not go bust, Grenoble being a good example. DNCG insisted recently that the club’s owners, Japanese company Index, immediately invest €5m to make sure the club’s books balanced. Without these types of precautions, Grenoble would surely have received a penalty which could have sealed their relegation to the National Championship.
The majority of Ligue 2 games are played on a Friday night and French Eurosport has a contract to show a live match each Monday night. With the scheduling planned so as not to clash with the Ligue 1 fixtures, there is a chance for fans to watch the second tier. Unfortunately, there is not the same desire to match the interest the Championship receives in England.
Attendances are nowhere near the level of the English second tier either. Nantes hold the biggest average attendance with just over 13,000 fans at each game, but the Stade de la Beaujoire can hold up to 38,000 so that makes for quite a few empty seats in the ground.
Most clubs average around 6 to 8,000. Lowly Istres can only manage 1,700 – an awful figure in a 17,000 seater stadium. Vannes have the smallest stadium at 8,000 and currently attract nearly 4,000 fans every week. Not bad when you consider Ligue 1 side Monaco can only get 6,500 on average into the Stade Louis II.
The level of interest can increase depending on the failure of some of the bigger clubs. Recently, RC Lens spent a season in Ligue 2 and their games would bring in a bigger audience. However, the novelty of having former Ligue 1 champions Nantes in the lower divisions is starting to wear off on the fans after two seasons in Ligue 2.
Before the rebrand to Ligue 2, the most attention the league ever saw was when Marseille were demoted due to the match-fixing scandal involving their former president Bernard Tapie in 1994. Marseille spent two years in Division 2 and, with the stature of the club still high, interest in the division was at an all-time peak.
Although L’Equipe run full match reports of all the games every Saturday, it is easy to see where the common French fan’s interest lies. Magazine France Football covers Ligue 2 but you will have to skip through stories from the English Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga before you get your fortnightly Ligue 2 fix.
The third tier of French football, or Championnat de France National, serves as a platform for teams who are not at the level of the professional clubs. The league consists of 20 teams and usually contains a mixture of semi-professional and amateur clubs. They battle it out for one of the three promotion spots to Ligue 2, while finishing in the bottom four means demotion to the regional leagues.
Toulouse were the last big-name club to find themselves in the National league. Financial difficulties saw Toulouse struggle to maintain their top flight status and they yo-yoed from Ligue 1 to Ligue 2 throughout the 90’s. Eventually, their situation became so bad that they were demoted down to the third tier. Luckily, Toulouse managed to keep their professional status and they were back in Ligue 1 after their short hiatus.
The Championnat de France Amateur, or CFA, is France’s fourth tier. Broken down into four groups of 18 teams, it contains a few semi-professional teams but most remain at the amateur status. In the CFA you will also find the best Ligue 1 reserve teams – these sides are not allowed to gain promotion to the National division but provide a good platform for top-flight teams to breed their youngsters.
The fifth tier of the French football pyramid is the Championnat de France Amateur 2, or CFA 2. Eight groups of either 16 or 17 teams – a grand total of 128 teams – take part, with the eight winners plus the four-best runners up gaining promotion to the CFA.
Overall, there are 16 tiers to the French football pyramid. The CFA 2 teams can expect between 200 and 500 spectators at their matches so there cannot be many people going to watch the tenth-tier teams play. Nevertheless, there may be an ambitious chairman somewhere watching the rise of a club like Evian and praying that, one day, his team can do the same.
Back in 2004, a club named Les Croix de Savoie became the CFA Champions. During that season, they reached the last 16 of the Coupe de France before being beaten by Rennes. This team had ambition. Unfortunately, they were relegated. 2007 saw the club merge with Olympique Thonon Chablais to form Olympique Croix de Savoie 74. The newly-formed club again gained promotion to the National while making another famous cup run, reaching the last 16 and this time being knocked out by Lyon.
In their second attempt at the National division, they fared much better. With the backing of French stars Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Alain Boghossian, the club managed a very credible finish of 5th. Wanting to build on the growing fortunes and ambition of the club in 2009, they again changed their name and Evian Thonon Gaillard Football Club was born, or ETG FC for short.
Last January, while going through a tough patch of form, ETG hired former Marseille and Tunisia coach Bernard Casoni. ETG finished the season top of the league with a record haul of 85 points. The fairytale has continued in Ligue 2. Moving to their new Parc des Sports d’Annecy stadium, the club currently sits top of the table. Although the competition is fierce, with five points separating the top eight, Evian are a fine example of what can be achieved by teams in the CFA.
Many leagues around Europe see Ligue 1 as a breeding ground for some of the best youngsters playing in Europe. Ligue 2, on the other hand, is seen as a vibrant breeding ground for some of the next big stars of Ligue 1. So often, the stars of tomorrow are sent out on loan to learn their trade and gain playing time.
Only recently, Bordeaux sent talented striker Henri Saivet off to Ligue 2 side Angers on loan, hoping the young forward can gain vital experience at a competitive level and come back a better player. There are quite a few household names that have previously shown up in Ligue 2.
PSG forward Guilleme Hoarau spent a season on loan at Le Havre in 2008. Hoarau lit up the division, scoring 28 goals and had a similarly successful time in the capital, before receiving French international honours.
Emmanuel Adebayor, Pierre-Alain Frau, Jean Claude Darcheville and Bakari Kone have all spent time in Ligue 2. Bundesliga star Papiss Cisse had a few years at FC Metz, impressing with 15 goals in 2009 and winning a big move to the German top flight.
When you take big clubs like Le Mans and Nantes and combine them with up and coming loan stars like Nicolas Fauvergue, Louis Arnaud, Lhadji Badiane and Henri Saivet, you have a wonderful place to develop talent.
Read the other posts in this series: