FootballFootball LeagueLigue 1

Aulas-Eyraud spat fills entertainment void after coronavirus halts French football

March 20, 2020January 6th, 2022

FOOTBALL may have been suspended in France due to the coronavirus outbreak, but that hasn’t stopped two of the country’s biggest clubs from slugging it out in public.

Hours after last Friday’s announcement that top-level football in France would be indefinitely halted, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas opined in an interview with Le Monde that if there was not enough time to bring the Ligue 1 season to a satisfactory conclusion, “the most logical thing would be to say that we cancel the season and we go back to the situation at the start of the season”.

With Lyon seventh when the season was suspended and drifting towards their first finish outside the top five since 1998, it was not difficult to understand why Aulas found the prospect of a “saison blanche (“blank season”) so appealing. He may have argued that scrapping the season would protect the French Football Federation (FFF) and France’s Professional Football League (LFP) from the threat of legal action from clubs involved in the Ligue 1 relegation battle, but it was obvious that the upper end of the table was uppermost in his mind.

Were this season to be expunged from the record books, it would be Paris Saint-Germain, Lille and – surprise, surprise – Lyon who would go into next season’s Champions League, having finished in the top three in 2018-19, rather than the current top three of Paris, Marseille and Rennes.

At Marseille, who sit second in the table with a seven-point lead over fourth-place Lille, Aulas’s proposal prompted outrage and incredulity. OM playmaker Dimitri Payet criticised the Lyon president in a late-night tweet, asking “Is this guy serious?” and suggesting that somebody take his temperature.

Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud’s response, in a short column that was published in Le Journal du Dimanche, was more considered but no less provocative. “In football we have our Líder Máximo [a title associated with revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro], ready to leap onto a devastating virus in order to obscure his club’s difficult season,” Eyraud wrote. “Should we scrap everything on account of the egoism of someone whose only compass is his [team’s] participation in the Champions League? When his fever dies down, Jean-Michel Aulas will realise the obscenity of his opportunistic proposition and quickly return to the values that make him an immense football administrator.”

And then the gloves truly came off. Never one to take an insult – real or imagined – lying down, the 70-year-old Aulas leapt to his own defence in a series of inflammatory Twitter posts, branding Eyraud “odious”, threatening him with legal action for “defamation”, criticising his handling of Marseille’s finances and making a mocking reference to a suggestion his OM counterpart once made that goals scored from outside the box should count double. “Football has never been your strong suit JH,” Aulas commented tartly.

Eyraud, 51, decided not to take the bait, but Aulas was not finished. Days later, he came up with a new suggestion that if the season could not be played to its conclusion, a “historical classification of the last three or five years” could be used to determine the final standings. In another remarkable coincidence, it transpired that if average positions over either the last three or five seasons were used to calculate the Ligue 1 table, Lyon would finish in the Champions League places in both instances.

While Eyraud has withdrawn himself from the debate, there has been no shortage of voices declaring that it is too soon to be bandying around proposals for how to conclude the campaign. Rennes coach Julien Stéphan, whose club are on track to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history, told regional newspaper Ouest-France: “The timing for discussing all that is not right at all. It’s a time for respecting the [governmental health] instructions and, for me, nothing else needs to be discussed.”

Nathalie Boy de la Tour, president of the LFP, has called for “solidarity”, while FFF president Noel Le Graët urged stakeholders from across French football to present a united front. “For the time being, we’re listening to what the state says and we’re showing a good example,” Le Graët said. “Football should not be making contradictory declarations in front of the whole of France.”

It has since emerged that Le Graët will ask UEFA for the end of the season to be delayed until mid-July in order to enable clubs in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 to fulfil their remaining fixtures, with the season’s administrative end-date moved from June 30 to July 31 to account for players whose contracts are due to expire at the end of June. There are 10 rounds of fixtures still to be played in Ligue 1, along with the Coupe de la Ligue final between Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon and the Coupe de France final between Paris and Saint-Étienne.

In the meantime, attention is switching to the players who have chosen to leave France to return to their home countries. Some of PSG’s South American contingent, including Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva, have left the country, with the wife of the latter explaining in an Instagram story that she had been brought to despair by the empty shelves in Parisian supermarkets. Lyon’s Brazilian midfielder Thiago Mendes and his compatriot Dante, the Nice captain, have also returned to their homeland.

The European Union’s decision this week to suspend all non-essential travel to the bloc for non-EU citizens raises the prospect of players being prevented from returning to France when their clubs eventually call them back to resume training. But for all of Aulas’s cogitations, exactly when that might be remains anyone’s guess.