It was an indication of things to come, and perhaps not quite what European Cup founder Gabriel Hanot had envisioned.
While preparing for the competition’s very first final, in 1955-56, Stade Reims players noticed that their star midfielder Raymond Kopa was exceptionally moderate. It was because he was in a strange situation, in this new event. Kopa had agreed to join Real Madrid’s last opponent once the season was over. It didn’t affect his performance, as he led Reims to an early 2-0 lead, but it still wasn’t enough. Madrid had too many. Reims lost the game, then lost their best player.
Kopa played against them with Madrid three years later, winning 2-0. And that – two finals in four seasons – was about as good as it was for Reims and French football in the European Cup and the Champions League.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Share the full story, not just the headlines
The country that founded the competition has never quite found its footing there. Even France’s only victory, of the controversial Olympique de Marseille of Bernard Tapie in 1993, has always been marked with an asterisk due to the club’s relegation and withdrawal of the national title for trying to secure a match against Valenciennes a few days before this. Champions League final. UEFA really should have stripped them of that trophy too.
There are various controversies with Paris Saint-Germain, as they prepare for the country’s first final since 2004, after a lot of tries and billions of euros in Qatari investments. It will only be France’s seventh final appearance in 65 years, keeping them behind the Netherlands (eight) and Portugal (nine), not to mention Germany (18), England (22), Italy (28) and Spain (29). And this for one of the five major leagues in Europe.
Part of the problem is that Ligue 1 has very rarely been one of the top two or three leagues. It has a lot of ripple effects, especially when it comes to keeping good players and teams together. Kopa was the first in a long line to play his best years away from home, from Michel Platini to Marcel Desailly to Zinedine Zidane.
The early years of the European Cup were actually a rare time when the French league was one of the best on the continent.
The competition was famously conceived when Hanot – a former footballer and manager and then journalist for The team – became irritated while reading a Daily mail article proclaiming Wolves to be the best team in the world after beating Honved in a touring match. UEFA came to its idea of a knockout, in large part thanks to the support of Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu.
French clubs had been successful in the small precursors of the European Cup, like the Mitropa Cup, and for around two decades, had attracted many global talent to the league. This allowed famous manager Albert Batteux to keep together a core of the country’s 1958 World Cup semi-finalists in Reims, including top scorer Just Fontaine, and to go up to twice so far in the competition.
It was around this time that France suffered one of these periodic drops in European football. Between 1960 and 1975, they only had a quarter finalist. It was still Reims.
It’s another indication of a European Cup problem for France, but something that has likely been good for the vitality of their championship. No French club had previously been able to reach the kind of size where it could have long runs at different times. France has never had Juventus, or Real Madrid, or even Manchester United or Liverpool before.
Saint-Étienne remains their most successful national team in history, with only 10 French titles. All were won between 1956 and 1981, and eight of them between 1963 and 1976. This spell should have seen a brilliant team become France’s first European champions, but sheer bad luck beat them in the 1976 final as much. than Bayern Munich. It became known as “the square post final”, with the way the ball bounced off two shots denying Saint Etienne. They never reached the same level again, which has been the history of many clubs.
Consider the differences in years between the last four appearances of the French teams. PSG and Monaco are the only clubs to have reached the semi-finals more than 10 years apart.
As fervent as French football can be, it’s hard not to attribute some of it to the country’s curious relationship with sport. The people’s love for them has never been more widespread or intense than any of the other four major leagues.
The spread of Silvio Berlusconi’s diffusion model in the late 1980s fostered the growth of clubs like Monaco under Arsène Wenger, PSG and – above all – Marseille. Marseille could even have been the first “super club” in Europe, such was the immense strength in depth of their team. They were almost a who’s who of European stars between 1990 and 1993, with signatures from Papin to Alen Boksic to Rudi Voller.
They were also almost men in Europe before 1993. Many lament the lamentable nature of the 1991 final defeat to Red Star Belgrade on penalties, but the context is often overlooked. War had already broken out in the former Yugoslavia by the time of this match in Bari, and the atmosphere was chaotic and tense. There have been persistent rumors that Belgrade players have rejected approaches to launch the game.
Tapie finally got the European Cup in 1993, but the joy was quickly overcome by disgrace.
Monaco and PSG themselves came closer over the next two seasons, but it was the end of an era for French football. Wider changes in the game, from Bosman to the development of the Berlusconi model, meant that larger television markets produced more powerful leagues, with England and Spain soon overtaking France.
It didn’t take long before Ligue 1 became first and foremost an exporter of the great talent it produced, the biggest nurturing league of all. Selling high was one of Lyon’s guiding principles in its decade of domination. Monaco reached the final in 2004 thanks to an outlier of a season, where the big clubs fell and FC Porto won.
It also shows the great irony of PSG reaching the final now. They achieved the required super-club size thanks to a takeover by Qatar, rather than anything that really has to do with French football. They are now the ones who buy the best players in the league, like Kylian Mbappe.
It’s just that if they win it, it would be Qatar’s victory as much as France’s.