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Center Circle Extra: French League Preview

Pierre Barrieu is the U.S. MNT strength and conditioning coach, and an impassioned supporter of all things dealing with French Football. Joining the technical staff in January of last year, he led the fitness preparations for the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the 2003 Confederations Cup. Board certified and holding a Master' Degree in Sports Science from the University of Nancy in France, he was a professional team handball player and a member of the French National Team.  Here he offers insight into the unique circumstances of French League football, as well predictions on the 2003-04 campaign.

Summer months are always a very special season in France. People only talk about two things: the Tour de France and soccer transfers. Since it is also vacation time for 75 percent of the population, a lot of stadiums located in the South of France -- Marseille, Bordeaux, Monaco, Nice -- get an unexpected boost in attendance in August. It can also make for some strange situations. For example, Bordeaux opened the season last year against PSG. Even if a big majority of fans were supporting the home team, a whole section of the stadium was filled with Parisians, most of them on vacation in the Southwest. At times, the stadium sounded like the Parc des Princes.

The French league, like every other, is composed of some very rich clubs, like PSG, Marseille, Monaco, and recently Lyon and Lens. Along with these elite teams, there are a lot of clubs that don’t have much money but do excellent jobs in developing players through their own academies. Nantes and Auxerre have a great reputation for their programs.
But unlike some other big leagues -- Spain, England, Italy, to name a few -- French teams have to deal with two major disadvantages:
1) Players have to pay 55 percent income tax, compared to the tax free salaries in other leagues
2) A special commission looks into every club’s finances at the end of the season. If a team has even a $1 debt at the end of the season, and does not present a solid business plan for the season to come, they are not allowed to recruit players and can be automatically relegated to a lower division. To put it in perspective, consider that when Barcelona bought Ronaldinho over the summer, their club was already carrying a debt of 100 million Euros.

Because of these two restrictions, the French League cannot attract big name imports, or even hold on to the best French players. As of today, more than 150 French players are now playing outside of France, and the number keeps growing each year. When PSG, the richest team in France, finally gave up and decided to sell Ronaldinho to Barcelona, it was because Barca offers a whopping 30 million Euros, which represents about 50 percent of the PSG’s total operating budget! In the end, a lot of teams are counting on youth development to survive, which is why France is known to produce so many good young players.

Regardless of the challenges, the French people love the sport of soccer and they get excited every year as season approaches. Obviously, the main questions come back each year: who is going to win the league, and who will be the surprises? And of course, who will fare better – Marseille or PSG? This is the Celtic-Rangers rivalry of France, and always the most intense.

The transfer market has been very quiet -- by far the quietest in years. The financial crisis that has plagued Europe obliged most of the teams to sell first before buying. Therefore, things have been largely status quo.

If anyone, I think PSG hit the jackpot over the summer. They recruited a good coach in Vahid Halilhodzic, who is known to be a strict disciplinarian. That approach is needed for a team with a history of great rosters spoiled by unprofessional behavior. They also signed Pauleta, the scoring machine from Bordeaux who scored 65 goals in three seasons.

Instead of hitting the transfer market, Monaco adopted the strategy to keep all their players by offering performance-based bonuses to be handed out at the end of the season. If they can make a couple additions to the squad, they should be really competitive. Lyon is hoping on the continuity with the same group, but it’s an aging side and their recruiting hasn’t been that good.

With all that in mind, here are some predictions for the 2003-04 Le Championnat:

Champion: It’s very tough to say. It’s going to be a race between Marseille, PSG and Lyon. PSG could benefit this year from not playing the Champions League. But as two-time defending champions, Lyon is the logical favorite.

Relegation Zone: Cleary the teams in trouble are the ones with small budgets and limited rosters and experience.  Each year two teams are promoted from Division 2; and statistically two out of three do the “elevator ride” (being promoted and quickly relegated) in the two years following their promotion.

Top Scorer: It’s a wide open race. I think Pauleta will certainly be up near the top again, and I’d also watch out for the strike partnership of Ahmed 'Mido' Hossam and Didier Drogba for Marseille.

Surprise Club: Sochaux. They did very well last year, and they did not have to sell any players during the off season.  They begin the campaign with a solid, organized group.

All 20 teams in France's top division were in action last weekend as Le Championnat opened the 2003-04 season.  Two-time defending champion Lyon fell 1-0 to Lille in the league's season opener, while U.S. international Greg Vanney and SC Bastia claimed a 0-0 draw away to PSG.