There is an argument that exists, that the reason France under-perform at major tournaments is because Olympique Lyonnais dominate Division 1 Féminine. There is, shall we say, a predictability to Lyon winning the French title every season. Their nearest challengers, Paris Saint-Germain (prove me wrong, Montpellier) consistently falter; even when it looks like they’ll finally best Lyon; something always goes pear-shaped for the Parisiennes.
Lyon are the Galácticos of women’s football, the team everyone wants to beat, the team players dream of playing for. But their impact on domestic women’s football has little to do with the French national team, with the two seemingly existing on different astrological planes.
A more robust league, but not a more robust NT?
PSG, to their credit, do try to invest and build a strong, competitive team but consistently they come up short (an article for another day). By and large, the league is part-time with a few notable exceptions – and just like you’ll see elsewhere around Europe, those few full-time sides usually come out on top. When you offer full-time football, you’re able to attract the highest calibre of players and coaches, you can invest in the sport science to make sure your squad makes it through the season as unscathed as possible, and vitally, you have a team that trains full-time, and doesn’t have to worry about anything other than 90 minutes each weekend. And it’s that shift from part to full time that gives you the extra energy, allows you to dig that little bit deeper for longer, and that is ultimately what magnifies the fine margins that win or lose games.
Getting back to the idea of competition and competitive leagues, I would argue every day of the week that not only can all leagues (including NWSL) be broken down into a simplistic top, middle, and bottom, but the Frauen-Bundesliga is one of the most competitive around. There are a few teams in Germany that boomerang from the FBL to 2.FBL (second tier) and back (FC Köln, Bayer Leverkusen, USV Jena etc.) and they certainly make up the bottom part of the league. But, and excuse the phrasing, there is certainly a thicc middle in the German league. From the standalone teams to those associated with men’s teams (to varying degrees), it doesn’t matter if a team is part-time and on a shoe-string budget with players pulled in from the furthest corners of the continent; easy matches are hard to come by.
Even with a competitive league, Germany hasn’t managed to stave off duopolies, with some teams ruling the roost for longer than others. Yet in that Frankfurt-Potsdam era, Die Nationalelf had its most prosperous spell, claiming back-to-back World Cups in 2003 and 2007.
As the league has grown and evolved, some teams have risen whilst others have fallen but the same competitive edge has remained. However, the same could not be said for the national team which has markedly struggled. German teams are still getting to Champions League finals but the national team has looked off pace on the world stage for a number of reasons, and if they are to claw their way back to the top, it’s likely that their own identity as a historical force to be reckoned with as well as their ironclad self-belief will facilitate their resurgence - neither of which Les Bleues possess.
Lyon aren’t the only problem in D1F
Unlike in the Frauen-Bundesliga, what we see in D1F with Lyon taking teams apart week in, week out, is the extreme exaggeration of those fine margins. Yes, Wolfsburg and Munich will have their routs when they come up against a team destined for relegation, but it’s far from a weekly occurrence. What people may not realise is that incredible domination by one or two teams at the top is something that’s been happening in the French league for longer than Lyon have been at the summit.
Instead of looking to blame Lyon for their repeated success, it you cast a wider look at the league you’ll see the same teams year after year – the top four composed solely of Lyon, PSG, Montpellier and Juvisy from 2009-10 to 2015-16. Go back a little further to the start of the rebranded league in 2002-03, take out PSG and you’re left with the same top three each season. The only noteworthy change in the last three seasons has been Juvisy falling away (and being absorbed into Paris FC).
Year after year, it’s the same three or four teams and whilst you can argue that Lyon import players, diluting down their “Frenchness”, if you look over the top three teams who do invest, that is where the French internationals end up (save for a notable exception or two). So, whilst there are “easy” games for Lyon, PSG and Montpellier historically spend their seasons fighting that little bit harder, more likely to come unstuck against an unlikely opponent – but also primed to give the perennial champions a good 90 minutes. Yet, we remain stuck in a French Groundhog Day where no matter what, Lyon are the ones left holding the trophy come the end of the season.
Unlike the French national team that routinely gets accused of being weak-willed or lacking the mental strength to climb to the top of the world’s elite, Lyon are the chalk to Les Bleues’
cheddar brie. In fact, if Lyon are to be compared with any team in the world it should really be the US women’s national team for their sheer mental strength and self-belief. And just like many nations have to overcome a mental hurdle when lining up against the current world champions, many domestic teams are already an own-goal down when they square off against the imposing Lyon, seeing the 90 minutes stretching out ahead of them like a winding road up a steep hill. Just like the USA are relentlessly ruthless on the international stage (not to bring it up but, 13-0) so too are Lyon on the domestic stage. Their opposition may change but their insatiability and drive to give every last drop until the whistle is something so familiar.
Yet when those same players pull on the world-recognised bleu shirts they become distinctly French (and entirely less Lyon), and that inability to score when it matters comes back to haunt them – something Lyon (even Lyon’s homegrown players) never have a problem with. And over the course of a major tournament, just like their male counterparts have so often, the nation begins to unravel, and the favourites to loft the trophy are forced home early.
The argument that if the league was more competitive, France would stand a better chance on the world stage is a spurious one. During the 2015 World Cup when France suffered heartbreak at the hands of the Germans, it wasn’t because Louisa Nécib (now Cadamuro) wasn’t sharp enough because she had too many games against Arras and Metz throughout the season and it had made her complacent. Nor was it because they needed an import like Swede Lotta Schelin to score their goals for them or because Marie-Laure Delie (then at PSG) was so taken aback by not trying to score past Sarah Bouhaddi; it was simply and depressingly because they’re France and they did a France.
The France team of 2015 was glorious and spoke to the volumes of what had been achieved at Clairefontaine. They echoed the men’s team from 1998, the football sublime but missing one crucial factor. The team was in sync, it was dynamic, it was a sight to behold, but struggled in the ways it still does on the biggest stages and that struggle and inevitable heartbreak might as well be written into the French DNA. Yet it has little to do with Lyon’s dominance in the domestic league.
As many balk at Jean-Michel Aulas and the apparent player stacking taking place at Lyon, the president of the club is ensuring one of the most competitive training environments to be found anywhere in the world and unquestionably sees improvements in each individual. In theory, no one has a confirmed spot in the starting XI with at least two players to cover every position, the more players that come through the doors at the Parc OL, the more are encouraged to push themselves further than they ever have, physically and mentally.
Yet there is also no denying that there is not one single player in the French national team that wouldn’t benefit from time away from their home league; too often we see players wrap themselves in the safety blankets of the familiar. To play in the strict and unforgiving German league or the physically imposing NWSL or evolving Spanish league; to throw themselves into a foreign environment, hundreds or thousands of miles from home, it builds (apologies for use of the cliche) character. It forces players to learn new things about both the game they love as well as themselves, and it asks questions players would never have been asked at home.
It’s easy, almost too easy to blame Lyon for the failings of the French national team but few think of the benefits playing for Les Fenottes has on the individuals who play for their national team (be they French or otherwise). And few think of the benefits to be taken from playing against Lyon, of how those across the league should try to push themselves to compete. So no, Lyon isn’t ruining the national team nor is it ruining domestic women’s football, it is simply a behemoth that sets a standard few can keep up with.