The Ligue 1 table has an intriguing look after four rounds of fixtures, with Lyon and PSG well off the pace as they try to recover from their exploits in the Champions League last month. Newly promoted Lorient are also hoping to shoot up the table soon. Having won the Ligue 2 title last season, their return to the top flight has been something of a rude awakening. After three years of trying to escape Ligue 2, they now face a relegation battle to stay out of the second division.
The club’s owner and president, Loïc Féry, has certainly provided the team with adequate financial backing this summer. Lorient have already spent €20m on seven new players and Féry is keen to keep spending in the window. “I don’t think there will be many clubs spending at this level, except PSG and Nice, but we needed it,” says Féry. “Spending money doesn’t guarantee you to stay up. It doesn’t guarantee you anything except the obligation to face specific payments in the following years. It is all about what you make with those players and what the coach is going to do with them, but clearly the way clubs are evolving, you need more working capital to invest. It becomes a more capital-intensive process. For that, clubs need different financial partners to the ones we needed 10 years ago.”
Féry was born in Nancy and quickly made his name in business. He was just 33 when he set up Chenavari, an investment company based in London that now manages more than $5bn in assets. He has always harboured ambitions of owning a football club. After exploring the idea of buying Nice, Grenoble, Nîmes and then Sheffield Wednesday, he settled on Lorient in 2009.
During Féry’s decade as an owner, French clubs have tended to develop players and then move them on to the Premier League at a profit. But he believes that this talent drain is coming to an end. “I would be ready to take the bet that this trend is going to fade away over the years, because some of the most competitive European leagues – namely England and Germany – are probably going to see that their development of revenues will not be the same as before, meaning that there will be a catch-up effect. Historically, France is the second highest exporter of talent into the Champions League clubs behind Brazil. To me, this doesn’t mean that the French league is inferior to others. It simply demonstrates the strength of the youth academy system in France.”
Féry’s optimism is greatly tied to Ligue 1’s new TV rights deal with Mediapro, which has boosted broadcasting revenues from €650m a year to €1.1bn a year for the next four seasons. Ligue 1 now has the second largest domestic TV rights deal in world football, sitting only behind the Premier League.
“This is a very important year for French football, given that media rights are very significantly up for the first time. There is a new broadcaster called Mediapro, a new TV channel dedicated to French football called Téléfoot, and obviously, this big shift is happening with France being world champion. Some of the young French players are the most promising talents globally. Clearly, there is ambition. The new president of the league, Vincent Labrune, said after his election that the aim is to be one of the top three or four leagues in Europe. France is definitely underrated on the European scene.”
Given the newfound financial status of Ligue 1, Féry is hoping to buy players rather than sell them to English clubs in the dying hours of the market. “There are things that can’t be turned down, but clearly this is not something that would be likely to change our strategy. In terms of the end of the transfer season, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of very good players who actually go the other way around. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by 5 October, you have top French clubs signing some UK players and of course there will be UK clubs buying in France as they do every year.”
Lorient are not heavyweights of French football. They have never won Ligue 1; they have a relatively modest budget; and their stadium holds just 18,000 fans. But Féry wants to seize this moment and increase the club’s international profile, with social media playing its part. When the club signed the Austrian striker Adrian Grbic from Clermont for €10m in July, Lorient announced the news online with a video that appeared to show their record signing jumping out of a plane. Fans loved it, the video went viral and Lorient caught the eyes of football followers around the world.
“If we had the Champions League of the player announcements, we would have won it,” says Féry with a laugh. “We are delighted and it is not just one guy, it is a team approach. It takes a lot of preparation, but the buzz that those videos have gotten –give us the Champions League of player announcement videos and we will be delighted.”
Lorient may well be the champions of player announcements, but Féry knows that picking up points will not be as easy. “Ligue 1 is a very different animal than it was three years ago,” he says. The club’s captain, Fabien Lemoine, made the same point last weekend after his team had been beaten 3-2 by local rivals Brest. “Today, Ligue 1 is incredibly strong,” said Lemoine. “If we do not have any solidarity or support between the lines, we are dead. If we want to compete, we need to bring a lot more heart.”
Féry, though, hopes this is the beginning of a golden era for both his club and the league, even sending a message to the Premier League. “I would say, watch out, because Ligue 1 is coming. It is incredibly attractive to a lot of players. They can enjoy the French way of life in fantastic areas, rather than in the middle of the UK. The life in the Midlands versus the life on the French Riviera or in Brittany … can be very different.”