Tonight, Bayern Munich will face Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League final. This match sees the end of a typically compelling competition spanning the coronavirus pandemic. Interrupted, like the rest of the world, by COVID-19, the games continued in condensed one-leg bouts in Portugal. As the matches progressed to the semi-finals without fans, they also left something else behind: clubs from Spain and England.
On August 15, Olympique Lyonnais put three past a star-studded Manchester City squad and eliminated them from the competition. In doing so, they headed toward the first UCL semis without a side from Spain or England in 26 years. The win shocked many English Premier League fans in particular, prompting PSG starlet Kylian Mbappe to tweet “Farmer’s League (clown emoji)”. Mbappe, who will turn 22 this December, tweeted the phrase in reference to a common jibe thrown at Ligue 1: they’re so bad they must be part-time farmers.
While Lyon went on to lose to Bayern Munich, the French squads looked threatening all competition. Mbappe’s actions, for club and country, speak just as loudly as his words. Can there be any truth to the farmer’s league trope?
Many of the farmer’s league banter comes from fans of the premier league, an institution ripe with French talent. Manchester United has Pogba and Martial, Manchester City has Mendy, Chelsea has Giroud, Kante, and, until recently, ex-Lille player Eden Hazard. What would Arsenal be without French-born Aubameyang and Lacazette? What would they be without the invincible Thierry Henry?
This list, while impressive, doesn’t actually mean that Ligue 1 is any good. Quite the opposite: it shows the general trend of talent leaving France. The French national football academy, Clairefontaine, must be the most lauded in the world, yet in European club competitions, France lags behind. UEFA’s country ranking coefficient consistently puts France fifth in Europe, behind Spain, England, Germany and Italy. A French club side, Reims, made it to the first ever European cup final in 1956. Reims lost in Paris to Real Madrid 4-3.
This first defeat set the tone of French club performance on the international stage: a French side has never* won a single UCL or Europa League title in history. *Marseille’s 92/93 Champions League victory notwithstanding, being chalked up with a match-fixing scandal. Paradoxically, France has won far more World Cups than European club titles. On August 23, PSG hope to change things.
However, “farmers league” critics often use PSG’s success as evidence for their claims. Since 2011, when Qatari ruler Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani bought the club, PSG has forced French clubs into successive defeats, if not part-time farming. With the exception of Monaco’s plucky 16/17 season, Paris Saint-Germain won every Ligue 1 title since the takeover.
While PSG’s domination does seem to suppress attendance at many Ligue 1 fixtures, it doesn’t write off the league entirely. Regardless of the recent Monaco win, Lyon finished seventh this season, a full 28 points behind PSG, and still sent Pep’s squad packing back to Manchester.
Ligue 1 boasts some solid back lines, despite the agricultural accusations. Kevin de Bruyne, lauded by Premier League fans and staff alike, only scored once against Lyon. Fellow Belgian international Jason Denayer formed the core of a Lyon defence that denied City’s Champions League dreams. In upcoming the final, PSG will bring Brazilian defenders Thiago Silva and Marquinhos to face Bayern. In the league, the likes of Rennes’s Damien da Silva and Monaco’s Kamil Glick excelled. Reims’s defendeder Hassan Kamara played so well this season it earned him a multimillion euro buyout from Nice.
Comparing pre-corona stats from England and France’s top flight defences offers a better insight into their similarities. In the 2018-19 season, the top six premier league sides conceded an average of 36 goals, keeping an average of 15 clean sheets. Across the channel, their top six French counterparts conceded an average of 38, keeping 14 clean sheets. The gap between the two nations is therefore more of a Dover-Calais distance than a Portsmouth-Normandy.
Bayern Munich are the favourites against PSG, but Neymar and Mbappe are having their best year together, if Ballon D’or wasn’t cancelled this year, then Neymar would’ve had a very high chance of winning his first. PSG carrying all the moment into the final, may just win the 2020 Champions League, for the first time ever in the club’s history.
French clubs are shrugging off the farmer’s league stereotype in modern football. PSG, Marseille and Lyon, at least, are forces to be reckoned with. Do other leagues farm them for talent? Yes. Do French defenders need an agricultural day job? Not a chance.