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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain transfer could be French soccer’s salvation

Messi PSG starting
Messi’s signing with PSG could reshape the European soccer landscape. Tesson/EPA.

Ligue 1 is an easy target for soccer fans. While the division is considered one of Europe’s so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues, it is frequently seen as the poor relation to the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A. That perception, however, could change drastically following Lionel Messi’s arrival at Paris Saint-Germain.

Of course, PSG have signed Messi to do more than wrestle the Ligue 1 title back from Lille, who upset the established order by claiming top spot last season. The Qatari-owned club have long had their sights set on European dominance through the Champions League and see Messi, arguably the greatest soccer player of all-time, as a shortcut to achieving this.

Some may assume that Messi’s arrival at the Parc des Princes would be viewed with dismay elsewhere in Ligue 1. Despite Lille’s title triumph last season, the division was already considered one of Europe’s least competitive, at least at the top end. With Messi only strengthening PSG further, there is little hope for anyone else. There will be no title race in France this season.

More than being PSG’s final piece, Messi can be French soccer’s salvation. Before his arrival, Ligue 1 was facing something of an existential crisis after the collapse of a €3.25 billion broadcasting deal with Barcelona-based multimedia group Mediapro amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Several clubs were pushed to the brink as they confronted the threat of bankruptcy.

Many measures, from the reduction of teams in the French top flight to various bail-out options, were discussed. An emergency broadcast agreement was struck and the crisis eased, but Ligue 1 had yet to find a long-term route to financial viability. That was, at least, until Messi put pen to paper to join the league.

“Messi’s arrival will bolster the attractiveness and visibility of our championship across continents,” Ligue 1 chief Vincent Labrune said after PSG’s unveiling of Messi. Saint-Etienne manager Claude Puel also called Messi’s signing a “huge boost” for everyone in France’s top flight. ““Can you imagine Messi coming to town?” he excitedly pondered before the deal was made official.

It can’t be overstated just how much of a draw Messi will be as a PSG player. Data shows that as much as 10% of visitors to Barcelona over the last 10 years were in the city to watch Messi at the Camp Nou. Those visitors will now plot a route to the French capital and the country’s soccer landscape will also be enriched.

Maybe not immediately, though. Unfortunately for Ligue 1, Messi’s arrival came weeks after a new three-year broadcast deal was struck. Had the Argentine been signed by PSG before those negotiations, Ligue 1 surely would have been able to squeeze more from the broadcasters now contracted to cover them.

Nonetheless, Ligue 1’s standing has been bolstered by Messi’s arrival. “If this is confirmed, it’ll be fantastic for us all,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas explained, anticipating how Messi’s presence at PSG will help Ligue 1 negotiate stronger and more lucrative overseas TV deals. “For the TV rights and the general marketing value of Ligue 1, it would undeniably be a plus.”

“If Qatar take the initiative to build a great team at PSG, we’ll all be happy – even if it makes the competition more difficult. But you need the other clubs, at least the ones going for European places, to have the means to sign players like Messi. In that case, we would become the number one league in Europe.”

On the flip side, though, Messi will only widen the gulf between PSG and the chasing pack at the top of the French game. The capital club already holds a monumental advantage through their vast resources, but the addition of a player widely considered the greatest ever will see this manifest on the pitch.

The excitement felt in France over PSG’s signing of Messi was evident in the crowds that assembled at the Parc des Princes and Paris’ Le Bourget airport to catch a glimpse of the Argentine on the day he arrived in the country’s capital. French soccer as a whole will have more eyes on it this season than has ever been the case.

In time, this could result in more investment in other areas of the division. Ligue 1 is the least developed of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues and so Messi might shed some light on this, thereby attracting others to the French game. It might not be for a number of years that the Argentine’s impact on the whole of Ligue 1 is felt, but it will surely be there at some point.

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