PARIS (AP) A popular saying in France has the country populated with 60 million national soccer coaches.
In bars, offices, restaurants, homes or public transportation, one of the French’s favorite pastimes is to argue about the France squad, its players and coaches. Endlessly.
That’s even more palpable when a big competition like the European Championship – which starts in France on Friday – is looming.
France is not like England, where the passion for football clubs is fierce and felt in every class of society. With the few exceptions of teams like Marseille, Saint-Etienne or Lens, which enjoy the support of a faithful working-class base of supporters, the interest for club football remains mediocre.
The last time France hosted a major competition, back in 1998, it ended up winning the World Cup. Two years later, Les Bleus lifted the Euro 2000 trophy as Zinedine Zidane and his teammates ruled over world soccer.
Nearly 1.5 million French fans flooded the streets of Paris and poured onto the Champs-Elysees on the night Zidane scored with two superb headers, before Emmanuel Petit added a third, to help France to its first and only World Cup win with a 3-0 victory over Brazil.
“Tonight I am proud to be French,” former France player David Ginola said after the win. “Proud because our football is recognized around the world.”
But that night did not produce a lasting effect on French society.
Eighteen years later, France is among the favorites at Euro 2016, with a squad packed with players featuring in the world’s most prestigious clubs, from Manchester United to Bayern Munich.
The country’s training academies keep detecting and exporting their best young talents across Europe and the likes of Hugo Lloris, Eliaquim Mangala, N'Golo Kante, Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial or Dimiti Payet are delighting English Premier League fans week in, week out. In Germany, teenage sensation Kingsley Coman has taken the Bundesliga by storm and Paul Pogba has become a stalwart of the Juventus midfield.
At home, it’s a different story – and a gloomy one.
While there were five London clubs in the Premier League this season, there is only one top side in the French capital, Paris Saint-Germain.
“Football did not become the No. 1 sport in France before the 1930s-40s, cycling was the national sport before,” sociologist Christian Bromberger told The Associated Press. “In England, the league started in 1871. Equally important, France is not a country where people make powerful claims based on their regional identities, like in Italy for instance. And the density of the working class in France is not comparable to England. France does not have the characteristics which fuel the passion for football.”
Although soccer remains the No. 1 sport in France with more than 2 million people affiliated to clubs, the interest in the French league has never been so low, while attendance in stadiums is declining despite the revamping and construction of new venues for the Euros.
“The fundamental problem for France is the poor quality of its league,” said Philippe Broussard, who has been documenting the world of football supporters for more than two decades.
“During the `80s-’90s, the level of the French league was very high. It featured world-class players and the show on offer meant stadiums were packed,” Broussard told the AP. “Today, the level is very low, and people are not fooled. They see it by themselves, they don’t need to look at the results achieved by French clubs in European competitions to know.”
No other French club than Marseille, which won the Champions League in 1993, has been able to win Europe’s top club competition. Even with the millions invested by Qatari investors, PSG has not been able to emulate its southern rival after four consecutive quarterfinal exits from the tournament.
But PSG’s dominance on the domestic stage is now total, extinguishing any sense of drama in a league lacking a real financial power of attraction. This year, PSG finished the season with a league points record of 96, 31 more than second-placed Lyon. Laurent Blanc’s team scored 102 goals in 38 league matches, conceding only 19.
“The level of play is declining, the spectacular players are running away and – PSG aside – there aren’t any other big investors capable of reviving the interest,” Broussard said. “The solution would be to have two or three other important clubs backed by big companies. But as for now, PSG has no rival. As a result, people in France are more interested in the result of Arsenal vs. Man City than watching Guingamp vs. Nice. It’s an absolute sadness.”
According to Broussard, who holds PSG membership and has been attending matches at the Parc des Princes since 1974, French public authorities are also responsible for the lack of enthusiasm in stadiums.
He said they are harming football culture with a repressive attitude toward supporters, failing to make a distinction between hooligans and hardcore fans supporting their club.
As a result, there were more than 200 traveling bans for away fans issued by French authorities over the past year in France.
“PSG managed to get rid of their undesirable people with a very strict plan, and it was necessary,” Broussard said, remembering the fights between PSG hooligans until a massive clampdown five years ago. “It’s working well, but authorities then thought it would be good to extend the scheme to every other club in France. The problem is that, with systematic traveling bans, stadiums are empty. And the atmosphere is not what it used to be.”