France: Football’s Next Epicenter

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Sacrebleu!

If you are connected to European football headlines, you must have heard people talking about Paris during the past few weeks. Even if you know very little about soccer, I’m sure you have heard the name Neymar before. If you’re well-versed and know more than just the basics, it is probable that you have gone through content related to the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, or Tiemoué Bakayoko. Oh, and of course you know that Portugal won the last European Championship on French soil against the tournament’s hosts.

It is not hard to find a common denominator between all of the things I just mentioned. Yes, it is France. Paris Saint-Germain is a French soccer club. Neymar signed with PSG. Lacazette, Mbappé, Dembélé, and Bakayoko are all French – and somewhat good – soccer players. And well, the French national team is France’s national team, but that goes without saying.

In just about five years, France has kind of become a reference point in world football. While it is true that no French club has achieved European success for the past 10+ years (PSG were winners of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996 and Marseille were winners of Champion’s League in 1993), the seeds are there for them to come back hunting for global glory. And this is not just about club level, but rather a national scale growth that is spreading all over the old continent.

Take France national football team. In 1998, they organised the FIFA World Cup and subsequently won it. In 2000, they played for the UEFA European Championship in Belgium and Netherlands and they went away with the trophy. 16 years later, during the past summer, they were awarded the organization of the European Championship again and finished as the runner-ups of the tournament falling to Portugal in the extra-time. They fielded a team with an average age of around 25-years-old considering their usual starting XI, had 10 players under age 26, and none of their star players – Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Woman, or Antoine Griezmann – had reached their prime.

Not a lot of players in that team came from France’s Ligue 1, though. Actually, only five of the 23 did and only one of those players (Samuel Umtiti, 22 years of age) was younger than 28. In a matter of just one year, things have changed so much in France. By comparing the Euro 2016 squad to the last one they fielded in international competition (June of this year against England), up to 14 players were playing in France at the time and just six were more than 30 years old. The youth intake of French talent is staggering. Just take a look at the transfer market.

During the past few weeks, the world of football transfers has become nuts, plain and simple. We have watched unimaginable amounts of money change hands and it doesn’t seem teams are slowing down by any means. At the center of the storm, again, are France-related teams and players.

After just one seasons playing at Dortmund, Ousmane Dembélé has signed for a staggering €105+ millions with Barcelona in wake of Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, which coincidentally happens to be a French club. Earlier in the summer English Premier League teams looked at France to reinforce their lines, with Arsenal signing the aforementioned Lacazette for €50 mil, Manchester City getting Benjamin Mendy for €30 mil, and Chelsea putting their hands on Bakayoko for €25 mil. A separate remark must be done for Kylian Mbappé, who is set to become most expensive French player ever after he completes his transfer to PSG from Monaco from around €180 mil – just €22 million shy of Neymar’s price tag – at just 18 years of age.

And it is not only about French teams producing and selling national products. They are also developing international talent acquired from foreign leagues. Just ask Monaco. The Monégasques have sold Bernardo Silva to Manchester City for €40 mil this summer, and in total, six players have left French clubs for other teams out of the country for between €10 mil and €20 mil, engrossing multiple teams’ finances and allowing them to bring talent as they have never been able to. In last year’s summer transfer window, the top five spenders in France burned €289 mil, while this summer they have already spent €459 mil – 59% more than last year – even without accounting for Mbappé’s money.

All of this showcases the willingness of a nation to become, as it was back in the day, a soccer powerhouse at both club and international levels. This season’s UEFA Champions League will see Monaco and PSG defend France’s pride. While the former will probably have it hard to achieve past season’s success – a semi-final exit against runner-up Juventus – due to their outgoing transfers, PSG looks poised and is expected to be one of the strongest teams in the tournament after acquiring Brazilian starlet Neymar and inevitably Kylian Mbappé as well.

The season in young, but France football is primed to make a name for itself in 2017 and beyond. And with the World Cup in the horizon, there’s no better time than now.

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