When Good Is Too Good: French Women’s Soccer and the Case of Lyon

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusreddittumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusreddittumblrmail

When you look at the team on paper, they are almost unbelievable. Lyon has had a women’s football club since 1970, but since merging with Olympique Lyonnais in 2004, the team has won the league ten times, the Coupe de France seven times, and the Champions League four times.

This season, they have outscored their opponents 140 to three in 22 matches across all competitions. They have attracted the talents of internationals such as Morgan Brian, Ada Hegerberg, and others, not to mention sporting many of the best players on France’s national team roster.

But is there a point at which you can be… too good?

Maybe it isn’t a matter of Lyon being too good. But it is difficult to look at the score lines of these matches and say they are being challenged. The only opponent to hold Lyon to a single goal this season is Paris Saint-Germain. Lyon has yet to lose across all competitions. Most matches they don’t even come close.

Lyon’s dominance brings up some interesting questions, especially when looking at the potential consequences for the French National Team.

It doesn’t take much digging to see that France has struggled on the international stage. Despite being ranked sixth in the world, they have never won a major international tournament. They have a talented roster, consistently strong at the club level. Yet they failed to make it past the quarterfinals in the Women’s Euro in 2017, the Rio Olympics in 2016, and the Women’s World Cup in 2015. Arguably their biggest accomplishment in the last three or four years was winning the SheBelieves Cup in 2017.

And it’s not just the failure to win matches, but how the French national team loses that is important to look at. Quite often, they choke. They don’t have the fighting spirit to keep going at the end of a match. In the rare moments when France surpasses this obstacle, they are glorious to watch. Look at their match against Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. But most of the time, they slip up. They get tired.

So, why does a roster that is so talented—that has players consistently rated as some of the best in the world—have such problems winning? I would argue that the lack of competition at the club level plays a big role. When you play at Lyon, you are training with some of the best in the world. If you’re Morgan Brian or Alex Morgan, you’re probably learning new ways of playing and experiencing new competitions that you aren’t exposed to in the United States. But you don’t get challenged every time you’re on the pitch. You don’t get that feeling of taking the field week in and week out, and fighting your heart out for a victory. You cruise to a win, check it off the calendar, and keep moving forward until you finally lift the trophy. And for French players who have played in this league their entire career, it can have a detrimental affect.

So, why does Lyon have no domestic competition?

There are a few factors that come into play. One is the structure—or lack thereof—of the French league. The league is loosely regulated by the federation, with no salary cap. PSG and Lyon are able to attract the top talent from across the country and around the world, meaning smaller clubs can’t compete. Contrast that with the United States Soccer Federation, which helps fund the NWSL and designed the league to help strengthen the national team and drive competition.

There is also the sheer amount of financial investment that Lyon has chosen to make in their female players. In 2017, SFR Sport reported that Alex Morgan made $33,000 per month while playing for Lyon. The Sun also reported that Lyon is the highest-paying women’s club in the world, with an average salary of £145,000 (roughly 200,00 US dollars). Other teams in France either aren’t capable of doing that, or don’t value women’s football in the same way. Paris Saint-Germain showed how much they’re willing to invest in their men’s side when they paid a record transfer fee of $263 million to bring Neymar in from Barcelona. The club is among the richest in the world; it would be a drop in the bucket for them to make a bigger investment in their women’s side, but they’re not willing to do so.

If France wants to be successful at the national level, they might consider club-level oversight from the French Football Federation, or perhaps even direct investment. The U.S Soccer Federation chose to invest in the NWSL, and it paid off: the national team has expanded the pool of talent available to them, and they’ve ensured that their players will play in a competitive league for at least part of the year. Maybe similar investments, as well as higher standards and regulations, are the answer in France as well. It might also lead to an increase in development opportunities for players in France. Whether that’s building on existing academies such as the one in Lyon, or building new academies in smaller clubs, it’s an investment that certainly would give the national team a wider pool to pull from. 

If France expects to keep up with the likes of the United States, Germany, or England, they’ll have to make some changes. And maybe that requires a dismantling of the dynasty that is currently sitting in the city of Lyon– or at least helping the rest of France catch up.