By Divij Jain ’21
On May 16, the Bundesliga (German soccer’s top division) resumed after a 66-day hiatus, and fans around the world tuned in to watch the games from home.
The Bundesliga was the first high-profile European soccer league to reopen after the postponement of all the major European leagues. La Liga, the Spanish top division, followed by resuming on June 11, and shortly after, the English Premier League and the Italian Serie A resumed. Only one of the “top-five leagues” in Europe was missing: France’s Ligue 1.
Five days after the last set of Ligue 1 fixtures, on March 8, the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP—the body that governs Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, the top two divisions of French soccer) postponed the season indefinitely due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout France. All European top soccer divisions postponed the season due to the arrival of COVID-19, except for the Belarusian Premier League. For several weeks, players and teams, unaware of whether the season would resume, did not know how to proceed. Group training was prohibited in most countries, so players took the initiative to train and stay in shape from home in case the season suddenly resumed.
On April 24, the Dutch Eredivisie became the first high-profile league to state their plans for how to proceed. After several teams, including Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, and PSV Eindhoven, expressed their concern for the safety of players and staff and requested that the season be cancelled, the Royal Dutch Football Association announced that neither the Eredivisie nor Eerste Divisie (the Dutch second division) would not resume. One day later, the Dutch FA added that there would be no champion for the 2019/20 season and no promotion or relegation between the leagues. At the time of the postponement of the league, Ajax and AZ Alkmaar were tied on points for first place, with Ajax ahead on goal difference.
On April 28, then-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that no sporting events would be allowed to take place in France until September, leaving the LFP to decide whether a champion would be crowned, promotion and relegation would occur between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, and who would qualify for the 2020/21 Champions League and Europa League. Two days later, the LFP made their decision: Paris Saint-Germain, twelve points ahead of second place at the time of the postponement of the season, were awarded their third consecutive league title, bottom two teams Amiens and Toulouse were relegated to Ligue 2, and the remaining standings were determined on average points per game (since at the time of postponement, PSG and Strasbourg had only played 27 games while all other teams had played 28). Qualification for the Champions League and Europa League was decided from the updated league table: top three teams PSG, Marseille, and Rennes qualified for next season’s Champions League, while the next three teams, Lille, Reims, and Nice, qualified for the Europa League. Seventh-placed Lyon missed out on participating in a continental competition for the first time since 1997.
The LFP’s decision received a mixed reaction from players and coaches. Some appreciated the expressed concern for the safety of players and staff. Nice’s Dante even went as far as to say in an interview with local sports newspaper L’Équipe that “We would have passed for puppets,” since they would be using tests and medical equipment to play while the rest of the country was still on lockdown. Others were concerned about the estimated collective loss of €200 million ($225 million) in TV revenue among all the clubs in Ligue 1. Those who were in good positions at the time of postponement, such as third placed Rennes who were in a position to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in club history, obviously showed little resentment towards the decision. However, the decision received backlash from Lyon, as well as relegated Amiens and Toulouse. Lyon were only one point behind fifth place, so qualifying for the Europa League in the remaining ten games of the season was far from unrealistic. Similarly, nineteenth-placed Amiens were only four points from safety.
After comments from Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas claiming that the LFP’s decision was “stupid” and that “they are robbing us [from the chance to play in European competition],” Lyon, along with Amiens and Toulouse opted to take legal action against the LFP’s decision. The case eventually made its way to the Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court. On June 9, the Conseil d’État made its ruling: the league table would stay as is, as there was “no serious doubt on the legality of this decision,” ending Lyon’s hopes for qualification to European competition. However, the court temporarily suspended the relegation of Amiens and Toulouse and floated the idea to have 22 teams in the 2020/21 Ligue 1 season, as opposed to the usual twenty in order to accommodate the promotion of Lorient and Lens from Ligue 1. Despite the original suspension of relegation, the LFP confirmed on June 23 that Amiens and Toulouse would in fact be relegated to Ligue 2.
Even though the Conseil d’État upheld the LFP’s decision to leave the final standings based on average points per game, the media has been revealing some controversial findings about how the decision was originally made. President of Ligue 1 club Saint-Etienne stated with confidence: “I can say that, on behalf of the Ligue 1 clubs, there was no consultation with us.” However, local newspaper Le Parisien revealed that French President Emmanuel Macron had, in fact, consulted with close friends who serve in high-ranking positions in French clubs before making the official decision. Among the people whom President Macron consulted were Pierre Ferracci, president of Ligue 2 club Paris FC, and Jacques-Henri Eyraud, president of Ligue 1 club Olympique Marseille. After a tumultuous season, Paris FC sat in seventeenth place in Ligue 2, two points safe of relegation, so Ferracci lobbied for the cancellation of the season for the interest of his own club. Marseille sat in second place at the time of postponement, set to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2013, so Eyraud similarly was in favor of the cancellation of the season. The media is continuing to learn more about the nature of how the decision was made to cancel all sporting events in France. For now, PSG and Lyon have returned to training as they are set to play matches of the postponed 2019/20 Champions League in August. The remaining teams can only sit and wait until the new league season starts in September.