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French in search of lost goals

Published: Friday 10 March 2006, 7.43CET
With goals in short supply in the French league, radical proposals to change the points system have been made by former national team coach Michel Hidalgo. Christian Châtelet reports.
by Christian Châtelet
from Paris
Published: Friday 10 March 2006, 7.43CET

French in search of lost goals

With goals in short supply in the French league, radical proposals to change the points system have been made by former national team coach Michel Hidalgo. Christian Châtelet reports.

Penalties to decide drawn league matches, bonus points for high-scoring victories, an extra point for the team that scores first. It may sound fanciful, but any of those three radical suggestions could soon become reality, in France at least. They are the brainchild of former France coach Michel Hidalgo, who has been tasked with finding ways to spice up French football. If the debate surrounding his report is anything to go by, he has done just that already.

Goals the essence
On 9 September, half the games in the Ligue 1 programme ended goalless. Frédéric Thiriez, the French professional league (LFP) president, had had enough. The time had come, he reasoned, "to act to change things. Goals are the essence of football, the essence of the show". Step forward Mr Hidalgo, who Thiriez appointed to recommend solutions to the dearth of goals in Ligue 1.

Goal drought
The French top flight averages below two goals a game this season, down from 2.2 last term. FC Girondins de Bordeaux have only scored 29 times but are second because they have conceded just 15 times. In the other major European leagues the goals-per-game average is up at around 2.5, and over three in Germany, way out of reach of the shot-shy French. In another era this statistical anomaly might escape scrutiny. In the modern world of high-finance football, however, the goal drought cannot be allowed to last.

More entertainment
Goals mean excitement, and it is excitement that attracts television viewers. Ligue 1 is second only to the English Premiership in television earnings in Europe, with Canal+ paying €600m a year for the right to screen matches until 2008. As Ligue 1’s exclusive broadcaster, they are in a position to demand more entertainment.

Striking exodus
There are several explanations for this lack of goals, among them the fact that Ligue 1's most talented strikers such as Djibril Cissé, Shabani Nonda, Didier Drogba and Ludovic Giuly have emigrated in recent years, taking their goals with them. "This effect is compounded by the ability of our goalkeepers," adds Thiriez, one of the most highly regarded lawyers in France.

Thiriez is on a crusade to improve the game. He pioneered the use of wireless earphone systems for referees, and last week petitioned the International Football Association Board in Lucerne for the use of video evidence during matches. That was turned down, but he may enjoy more success implementing his ideas about the point system.

'Audacious players'
Hidalgo, a new LFP board member, like Thiriez is concerned about the lack of excitement in the game and the implications that has for the future. "We must find ways to encourage audacious players," said the 72-year-old, who led France to the UEFA European Championship title in 1984. His aim is "to fight goalless games". As Hidalgo points out: "It is goals that leave their mark on the memory."

Six possible changes
Over a five-month period Hidalgo canvassed the opinions of club presidents, coaches, players, broadcasters and key figures from other team sports, and last week he proposed six possible changes to the points system:

● Two points for a score draw and one for a goalless draw
● One point for a draw plus another for the team that scores first
● Penalty shoot-outs, with three or four points for a win after 90 minutes, two points for a win after penalties and one point for a defeat after penalties
● Extra points depending on the margin of victory, for instance, five points for victory by more than two goals, four points for a win by two goals etc
● Rewarding a two-goal winning margin, so that three points are awarded for a win by two goals or more, and only two points for a win by a single goal
● Coupling league matches on a European home-and-away basis with a bonus point awarded to the side that wins its 'tie' on aggregate

Mixed response
Those six proposals have been put to club presidents and have been met by a mixed response, but the LFP is keen to implement change, even considering testing proposals five and six in Ligue 2 next season. "Number five is not bad," Paris Saint-Germain FC defender Sylvain Armand said. “Very often the team leading 1-0 keeps it tight. With a bonus for the second goal they would be keen to keep attacking and so improve the spectacle."

Past mistakes
A goal bonus system was used in France for the same reasons as today from 1972 to 1974, until rumours of match-fixing brought about its demise. It did not work primarily because the bonuses were too high. Having learned from others' mistakes, Hidalgo has made his point well this time around.

Last updated: 09/03/06 19.09CET

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