February 4, 2016

LINSEY | Are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint Germain Just Too Good for Ligue 1?

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A six-foot-five tattooed talismanic Swede with a ponytail, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an imposing striker. Coupled with this tough persona, Zlatan can do an insane array of tricks and flicks with a soccer ball, topped off with a powerful shot. He has scored more than 400 career goals, at a rate of almost two every three games. In short, he is one of the 10 best soccer players in the world.

Zlatan plies his trade for Paris Saint-Germain, a club that competes in France’s Ligue 1. The league is widely considered one of the top five in Europe in terms of quality. Zlatan’s 2012 arrival from AC Milan strengthened the league’s talent pool. PSG could afford a player of Zlatan’s caliber because Qatar Sports Investments purchased the club in 2011. The chairman of QSI, Nasser al-Khelaifi, bankrolled a major spending spree, allowing the club to land superstars such as Ibrahimovic. In the years after QSI’s takeover, PSG signed more global stars with QSI’s money, ranging from proven talents like Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani to up-and-coming starlets, such as Marquinhos and Marco Verratti. This influx of talent positioned the French club for a positive future.

The team followed through, winning the league championship in the 2012-13 season. PSG went on to win the title in the next two seasons, as well. This season, to the surprise of no one, they are currently at the top of the Ligue 1 standings. What is shocking, however, is the distance between PSG and the rest of the league — the second-place team, AS Monaco, sits 21 points behind PSG. So far, in 23 games, PSG has won 20, drawn three and have yet to record a loss in league competition. They also sport a whopping goal difference of 48, meaning they have scored, on average, over two more goals per game than their opponents. Basically, the team is far better than the rest of the French clubs.

PSG’s performance this season becomes less surprising when you consider the team’s finances. According to French Football Weekly, their season budget of €490 million is more than four times the budget of any other team in Ligue 1. On paper, there is nothing wrong with Khelaifi’s major investment in the club. The players he has purchased have allowed PSG to compete with the major European giants in the UEFA Champions League, the Europe-wide competition that determines the best team on the continent. PSG even reached the quarter-finals last year, which they could not have done before Khelaifi bought the team. Their continental resurgence is a pleasing sight to fans of international soccer, who generally welcome new competition for Europe’s traditional heavyweights. Continental football benefits from a strong Paris-Saint Germain.

However, PSG’s financial hegemony is negatively affecting Ligue 1’s competitiveness. PSG’s collection of talent ensured the title race was over before it started. The other typical French title challengers, such as Saint-Etienne, Lyon and Marseille, have all struggled, and none of these teams are even in the Top-4 of the 20-team league. This has created a vacuum of top teams to challenge Paris Saint-Germain’s stranglehold on the championship. Thus, viewership and interest in Ligue 1 has gone down.

Where have these viewers gone? Some are watching Barcelona and the Madrid clubs go at it in Spain, or Inter and Juventus tangling in Italy. But most are surely watching the Premier League, which is having one of the most fascinating seasons in memory. One cannot fault these fans for preferring a competitive league over one where one team owns all the all-stars.

Here in The Beautiful Game, I cover the Premier League most weeks, so today it was time to cover another European league, France’s Ligue 1. A major problem facing the league is that Paris Saint-Germain, a star-studded team, is paradoxically out of its league. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as a global superstar, symbolizes the type of player available to PSG, but not their French competitors. If PSG continues to romp to the title in future seasons, interest in Ligue 1 will go down due to lack of competition. France needs to address the PSG problem in order to ensure the fans stay entertained.