Eight French clubs were on the starting line in this season's European club competitions. All of them have fallen by the start of March.
Remaining sides eliminated
The last three French teams involved in European competition were either eliminated from the UEFA Cup on Thursday, or lost any hope of reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League earlier in the week.
On Thursday, Olympique Lyonnais were humiliated by the shooting stars of FC Slovan Liberec with a 4-1 defeat in Prague. Lille OSC, meanwhile, failed to overcome BV Borussia Dortmund and went out on the away-goals ruling after a goalless draw in the second leg in Germany. Two days earlier, FC Nantes Atlantique had become the first club to be mathematically eliminated from the second group stage of the UEFA Champions League after a heavy 5-1 defeat at Manchester United FC.
This all adds up to a disappointing performance from the country currently holding both the world and the European crowns at national-team level. Indeed, it is even more disappointing considering that CS Sedan-Ardennes, FC Girondins de Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain FC were all eliminated from the UEFA Cup before Christmas.
However, there are valid reasons behind the relative failure of French sides to shine in Europe. The principal one, arguably, is economic. Most top French players prefer to leave their home country to play abroad where they can earn more money and play on a bigger stage.
French players shine abroad
After all, it has become more than common to see French players impress in UEFA Champions League matches. On Wednesday, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry all scored in Arsenal FC's 4-1 victory over Bayer 04 Leverkusen; David Trezeguet is currently the joint-leading striker of the competition; and Zinédine Zidane and Claude Makelele have already reached the quarter-finals with Real Madrid CF. Indeed, there were more players of French origin (104) registered in this season's Champions League competition than of any other nationality.
Furthermore, in France clubs are not allowed to float on the stock exchange - a move that arguably prevents clubs from generating the sort of revenue regularly used by English, Italian and German clubs to strengthen their teams.
French clubs' finances are controlled by the Direction Nationale de Contrôle et de Gestion (DNCG) and a club that racks up too large a deficit is automatically excluded from the top division. This happened, for example, to Olympique de Marseille a few years ago while last season Toulouse FC dropped down two divisions from the top flight due to their relegation and financial problems. Finanical laws are not as strict in other parts of Europe. In Spain, for example, Real Madrid were given enough time to improve their financial situation and produce the needed revenues.
Then there is the disparity in income from television. In France, TV rights are granted under French law to the French Football Federation (FFF), which passes them to the league (LNF). The cost of rights for the 2001/02 season were €400m - considerably less than the €650m and €620m sums raised in Italy and England respectively. However, as Nantes head coach Angel Marcos explains, it is not only a question of money.
"There is a great cultural difference between France and England for example," he said. "Look at Manchester [United FC] they have one century of big football history behind them. In France, football is not given the same importance." This is confirmed by the fact that even the victory of the French national team at the last FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship did not really contribute to increase the attendance levels in domestic French football.
In England, Italy, Spain and Germany the clubs can count on large support from fans - even when results are poor. The situation in France is slightly different - even though football is by far the No1 sport in the country, it has not become a 'religion'. Which is why a repeat of Marseille's 1993 Champions League triumph now looks the stuff of miracles.
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