PSG is primed to dominate Ligue 1
When France's Ligue 1 kicks off this weekend, it will likely attract more attention than any Championnat since the early 1990s, when Marseille ruled the roost and Monaco was led by a lanky, bespectacled young manager named Arsene Wenger.
Now you have Paris St. Germain, whose net spend in the past 15 months is around a quarter of a billion (with a "B") dollars. And if recent reports linking PSG to Lucas Moura are to be believed, it could go even higher. In terms of financial muscle, it's on a par with anyone in Europe right now.
Of course, it takes more than economic might to achieve success. And while Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- added to last year's newcomers Thiago Motta, Javier Pastore, Jeremy Menez, Alex and Salvatore Sirigu -- mean that manager Carlo Ancelotti now has a powerhouse at his disposal, there's a long way to go before the gap with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and the Manchester clubs is closed.
How and if the pieces fit together and whether Ancelotti can make them click remains to be seen and is, perhaps, a column for another time. (Personally, I think few managers can match the former Milan boss when it comes to extracting the best from a group of big-name superstars.) What's interesting here, though, is whether PSG can lift the rest of the French league or whether being in Le Championnat turns out to be a bit of a millstone.
Marseille and Lyon, which historically ought to be PSG's rivals for the title, are treading water. Both are in tricky positions financially and both have played "small ball" in the transfer window. Elie Baup, who replaces the French national team-bound Didier Deschamps, will be working with the same set of players who collapsed so dramatically late last year (two league wins after January). There's no reason to think he's going to do any better. Lyon, once the gold standard of good governance, spent most of the summer trying to get rid of its high earners so they could be replaced with cheaper youngsters. Kim Kallstrom and Ederson moved on; Aly Cissokho and Michel Bastos have not, at least for now.
The one club that has tried to push on is Lille, for which coach Rudi Garcia has performed annual miracles and remains one of the most underrated bosses around. Last season, after winning the title in 2010-11, Lille lost Gervinho, Moussa Sow, Adil Rami and Yoann Cabaye, yet still managed to finish third. This summer, it was Eden Hazard's turn to make tracks, yet with Marvin Martin and Salomon Kalou coming aboard you feel Garcia can pull off another minor miracle and keep Lille in the running. With a new 50,000-seat stadium opening soon, Lille could soon have the financial clout to actually hang on to its stars and, perhaps, even get in PSG's way.
Then, of course, there's the defending champion, tiny Montpellier, whose fairytale run to the title last year was Disneyesque, given its puny budget. With the big target man, Olivier Giroud, off to Arsenal and defensive stalwart Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa possibly also on his way, it's hard to see lightning striking twice.
On paper, it looks as if only Lille can stand in PSG's way, and even then it's a long shot. The question, though, is whether this will be good for the French league in the medium term. And the answer is far from clear.
Having a big spender around can lead to a classic trickle-down effect, with Qatari money finding its way, via PSG, to the rest of the clubs. The problem is, since the Qataris took over and installed Leonardo as director of football, PSG has done its spending abroad, mostly in Serie A. At the same time, PSG's presence is likely to lead to wage inflation, which is never a good thing for the competition.
Speaking of wages, there's another huge, dark cloud on the horizon.
Francois Hollande, France's president, has vowed to impose a 75 percent tax rate on anyone earning more than a million euros ($1.25 million) a year. And while millionaire footballers generally don't rank very high on anyone's sympathy list, it's bound to hit Ligue 1 hard. Many players either negotiate their contracts in net (after-tax) terms or have clauses that protect them from sudden spikes in income tax. (And those who don't will make their feelings known as soon as it's time to renegotiate their deals.)
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Currently, a footballer's take-home pay in France is around 50 percent of his gross wages. Bump the tax rate to 75 percent and you don't need to be a genius to figure out the havoc it could wreak. A guy making $5 million gross a season will need to nearly double his pre-tax wage to around $10 million to get the same net paycheck as before.
PSG, of course, can seemingly absorb the tax shock without batting an eyelid (there are major Financial Fair Play implications, but it seems as if they'll cross that bridge when they get to it). It's a different matter for the rest of the league. A 75 percent top tax rate is obviously a political decision, and this is a sports column, so I'll leave it to others to debate its merits. But one undeniable side effect is that it will hit the French game hard.
Possibly hard enough to negate some of the beneficial effects of the recent investments, including the building and refurbishment of new grounds ahead of Euro 2016 and the big TV deal with Al Jazeera. And that suggests that even if PSG attain success domestically and in Europe, we may not have that rising tide lifting all boats.
Gabriele Marcotti is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer. He is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN Press Pass and read him here twice a week. Follow him on Twitter: @marcotti.