With its voluptuous bonnet, raised posterior and steamy adverts of a fur-clad Brigitte Bardot stroking its large circular steering wheel, Roland Barthes was certain: this was the car a France in decline needed. For before the Citroën DS “fell miraculously from the sky” as Barthes would later put it, a nation had lost its sense of self-ease and effortless confidence. The rancour from France’s abject fall from the trente glorieuses into the humiliations of World War II and Algeria had seeped into the bloodstream of a population. Amid France’s espresso-sipping, black turtlenecked club of postwar philosophers, whole systems of thought were being questioned.

And then, like manna from heaven, came the DS in 1956. With its playful phonetic name – DS spelling out Déesse [Goddess] – and sultry exhibitionism, the car became a cultural rallying point. It was an icon around which an alternative, positive image of France could be construed: a France of Bardots and autos that captured both the attention of lip-biting Frenchmen and a certain philosopher. As Barthes wrote in his 1957 Mythologies, in the DS and other items of everyday mass culture, France had found new enticing pillars of national identity with which to shut out the post-war feelings of despair.

Citroën was bought by Peugeot in 1975 and, today, the original DS sits in the company’s museum at its founding 1912 plant in the French town of Sochaux. Displayed as part of a curated exhibit entitled the ‘Mythologies of Sochaux’, it is not, however, merely automobiles that are presented as the emblems of an era. In the far corner of the room, glass cases shelter a wave of canary and blue football shirts, gilded trophies and grainy match reports. Here lies Sochaux’s second ‘mythology’: FC Sochaux-Montbéliard, the football team embedded in the national consciousness of France.

For Barthes, the majesty of the DS was equivalent to “the great Gothic cathedral: the supreme creation of an era construed by a whole population as a purely magical object”. It was this semi-religious status that endowed it with the power to rally people during times of crisis. Established as France’s first professional football team by Jean-Pierre Peugeot in 1928, the spiralling tribunes of its stadium attracting attendances four times larger than the town’s population, Sochaux also assumed a magical status amongst a region’s devout fans.

Antoine Mourat’s study of the role of the club in Peugeot workers’ lives shows a remarkable phenomenon. In an interwar France in which depressed wages led to political protests across the nation, the club had a pacifying effect on Peugeot’s employees. Particularly in the Franche-Comté region where only 0.5 per cent of communes even had an amateur football club, Peugeot’s offering of a team to its workers made the latter feel like their bosses cared. As a result, whereas protests had paralysed the Peugeot factory throughout 1923-27, they came to a near halt in the 1930s.

The club’s ability to be the social glue uniting employers and workers continued for another 70 years. When Pierre Baylot, a Peugeot worker, was killed by police in Sochaux during the riots of May 1968, it was the club’s French international Georges Lech who led a mourning ceremony that delicately encouraged employees to renounce violent retribution. During the industrial decline that hit Sochaux and other manufacturing cities in the 1990s, attending the club’s Auguste Bonal stadium often offered the only source of respite amidst the despair.

Cars, football and workers: the holy trinity that has sewn a city together. How ironic therefore that it is now a car that risks pulling FC Sochaux apart at its seams.

In the same way that to gaze at the DS was to gaze at the future, the Tesla Model S has been described as redefining the boundaries of car manufacturing. It is full of its own little mythologies: its battery is claimed to channel ‘yogic’ energy while its design is attributed to an 11-year search for ergonomic perfection. If epoch-defining for the automobile industry, the Model S is also proving central to FC Sochaux’s history. In 2015, Peugeot’s CEO Carlos Tavares sold FC Sochaux to the Chinese company Ledus, citing the need for the car manufacturer to focus its efforts fully on the automobile industry “given the rise of Tesla and other competitors.”

If Sochaux fans were disappointed at the collapse of this historic alliance between the club and its industrial patron, they nevertheless licked their lips at the prospect of Chinese investment. Ledus’s owner, Wing Sang Li, possessed 19 per cent of the shares in Tech Pro Development, a company valued at US$1.8 billion on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. With Tech Pro’s valuation doubling each year, and Li promising to spend €100 million on the team within three months, Sochaux’s future looked promising.

But then came the story about the car.

In July 2017, news leaked that Li had asked FC Sochaux’s commercial department to use €150,000 of the club’s funds to purchase a Tesla for his own personal use. This would have been relatively unremarkable if the quoted sum was to be provided from money that Li had himself invested in the club. Except it had already been announced that Li had invested no such money. In 2016, Ilja Kaenzig, the CEO Li had appointed to run Sochaux, had stated publicly that Li would not be investing in the club before 2018 as a stabilising measure.

As eyebrows furrowed, journalists burrowed deeper into Li’s past. It soon appeared that one reason Li might not be investing money in Sochaux was because he seemingly had none. A 2016 joint report by the Wall Street Journal and Glaucus Research Group accused Tech Pro of being an “obvious fraud whose equity is actually worth 0.0 Hong Kong Dollars”. Based on publicly available filings made by the company, the WSJ accused Tech Pro of repeatedly massively overstating both its reported profits and the purchase price of its acquisitions. On 27 November 2013, for example, Tech Pro announced the acquisition of Shanghai Fuchao for ¥450 million. The actual price paid, according to the WSJ, was ¥4.5 million. Within one day of the US newspaper’s report being published, Tech Pro’s stock value fell by over 94 per cent to less than one cent of a euro.

If the finances could not be trusted without question, neither it seemed could the men hired by Li to run the club. Thomas Lichtenauer had been appointed as a director of both FC Sochaux and Ledus’s French affiliate, Ledus France, in 2015. An investigative report by local newspaper, L’Est Républicain, soon found, however, that Lichtenauer had a history of making financial misstatements to the French authorities while bankrupting companies under the cover of exotic pseudonyms.

When Ledus France filed for bankruptcy in 2017, despite previously claiming to have secured a lucrative €4.3 million public works contract that it had in fact never even bid for, anxieties mounted. When club officials were called later that year before the Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion (DNGC), the body responsible for monitoring and licensing the budgets of France’s professional football teams, the endgame was reached. The previous accounts Ledus had presented to France’s footballing authorities had contained alarming misstatements. Rather than subsisting on an even economic keel, FC Sochaux was haemorrhaging €9 million a year.

Threatened with relegation to the fifth division unless bank guarantees were provided by July 2018, Li instead sold Sochaux to Baskonia Alavés, the owners of the La Liga club of the same city. French national champions in 1935 and 1938, FC Sochaux’s first team now serves as a nursery ground for Deportivo Alavés’s budding youths. Of the club’s present starting 11, six are Alavés players.

Described by French newspaper Le Monde in 2014 as an “ogre” of a town and ranked as the 265th poorest of the 266 communes in its département, Sochaux is not a place where the financially flamboyant receive much sympathy. One of the favourite refrains of L’Est Républicain is that the town’s dire economic prospects have created a particularly intense relationship between population and football club. Banners outside the club’s Auguste Bonal stadium echo such claims to exceptionalism. “Plus Qu’un Club” (More than a club) they read, mimicking Barcelona’s famous slogan.

Yet for all these claims of uniqueness, Sochaux is merely representative of a wider phenomenon gripping the country’s post-industrial cities. In towns whose manufacturing output once provided a platform for sporting glory – places such as Saint-Étienne, Lille and Lens – the nationwide switch to a service-based economy has cut the financial legs from underneath former footballing giants. That a shift in the economy’s underlying structure has had such a marked impact on the sporting fortunes of so many post-industrial cities is not coincidental. Rather it is the result of what the sociologist Loïc Ravenel calls France’s “unique football geography”.

Look to London, Madrid or Milan and you find cities with a plurality of clubs. In France, however, the sporting landscape is different: for every major conurbation, you find one major team. The origins of this peculiarity lie in the France of the 1960s. With the recently concluded war in Algeria having consumed 18 per cent of France’s national budget each year for nearly a decade, the French economy was reeling. Shorn of confidence, private investors took their money elsewhere, to the economic miracle of West Germany or the solid shores of Britain.

This phenomenon extended to the domain of football. As the economist Jacques Marseille found when in 1990 he tried to compile a history of post-war private investment in French clubs, there simply was none. With little state money to go round to help clubs survive, a coordinated decision was made by French municipalities. Namely, it was better to concentrate those limited funds available in the hands of one club per region than to spread the jam too thinly and damn them all.

The result was a championship in which municipally-funded teams were more or less on a level playing field. Compare Marseille and Saint-Étienne in 1971 and you find that 32 per cent of both clubs’ budgets came from local administrative revenues. In this environment, teams from France’s industrial heartlands arguably enjoyed a competitive advantage. In figures such as Jean-Claude Darmon at Nantes and Roger Rocher at Saint-Étienne, these manufacturing cities had local businessmen willing to transfer the marketing and commercial strategies they had mastered in a competitive export industry to clubs’ boardrooms. The added income derived from these practices catapulted French teams up the league. In the period between 1970 and 1983, Nantes won the league four times. For Rocher’s Saint-Étienne, the total was eight.

Fast-forward to the present day and municipal funding has become but a marginal revenue stream in French football. In 2004, the economist Nicolas Chanavat estimated that less than four per cent of Ligue 1 clubs’ budgets came from administrative funds. In 2016, this figure fell below 0.3 per cent. Clubs in France’s industrial heartlands therefore face a particularly cruel predicament. Their footballing egos artificially inflated by the state-funding of the 1960s, these clubs’ names are too evocative of glory for their fans to accept a newfound role as Ligue 1’s ‘petits poucets’.

Pitted now, however, against elite super clubs with unprecedented levels of wealth, they lack the resources to redeem past glories. And so, left in an existential quagmire, post-industrial clubs must decide whether to stick or twist: to potter along or gamble on a foreign investor of whom they can often know but little. The choice is a daunting one. For every success story of a Monaco or Nice, there is the haunting reminder of Le Havre and Grenoble.

It is not only the ubiquitous slag heaps and red-brick terraced houses that render the former coal mining town of Lens grim. It is also the stereotypes. When, in 2008, PSG fans unfurled a banner calling the locals “paedophiles, unemployed wasters and inbreds,” they touched a nerve so raw that the local prefect decided to instigate a court case for hate speech.

Yet Lens has also experienced its own encounters with grandeur. Under the ownership of the local millionaire Gervais Martel, the club took a tilt at glory in the 1990s. Lens may be smaller in size than Macclesfield or Stevenage, with a population of less than 35,000, but this did not stop Martel commissioning the same firm that built Manchester United’s megastore to renovate the Stade Félix-Bollaert into a 42,000 seater in 1994. A league title followed in 1998, the first step in a rags-to-riches story for a city that saw its previously derided slag heaps listed as a world heritage site in 2001 and the Louvre Museum open an award-winning branch in 2012.

Just like Martel, the Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov is accustomed to commissioning grand construction projects in modest locales. Part of a Mammadov family dynasty described by U.S. diplomatic cables as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan,” the man who would purchase Racing Lens in 2013 had previously been involved in building a Trump Tower Hotel in Baku’s poorest district.

Situated in an area so squalid that the previous record price for a local hotel room had been US$42, the project was never finished and is suspected to have been a money-laundering scheme for the benefit of Hafiz, his brother Anar and father Ziya. If the famous expression “follow the money” applies, the chain of contracts at least raises eyebrows. Ziya is a minister in the same Azerbaijani government that sold the hotel land to Anar’s company at an allegedly undervalued price. Anar in turn contracted Hafiz’s business to furnish the hotel’s interior.

When Hafiz Mammadov’s Baghlan Group purchased Racing Lens in 2013 the first signs were promising. Mammadov boosted the club’s budget and Lens secured promotion to Ligue 1 for the 2014-15 season. Yet this sporting success had already become secondary to mounting concerns regarding Mammadov’s finances. In December 2013, the French bank BNP Paribas announced that Baghlan had defaulted on a €136 million loan. Two months later, the markets and risk specialists McGraw Financial gave Lens the poorest score of any of the 44 publicly listed football clubs in Europe.

Yet none of this compared to the potential severity of what was about to happen. In September 2014, a single bank transfer entangled the club in the largest money-laundering operation Europe has ever seen. The Azerbaijani Laundromat was a €2.5 billion scheme that saw government individuals curry influence, pay lobbyists and launder cash through an offshore company called Hilux Services Ltd. At the heart of the scheme, according to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, lay the Mammadovs.

By September 2014, Lens needed to provide €2 million in bank guarantees to the FFF in order to retain their Ligue 1 license. Such was the sorry state of Lens’ finances that when €2 million was deposited into the struggling club’s bank account by Hilux Services on the 18th of the month, its directors’ first response was to breathe a sigh of relief. With the club facing liquidation, no one initially stopped to ask why the money had come from a company Lens had never even traded with rather than Mammadov’s Baghlan Group.

Soon, however, the club’s financial director Gilles Deshayes began to worry. Under French law, it is illegal for anyone apart from a shareholder to invest funds in a club, meaning that Hilux would need to be a subsidiary of Baghlan for the transfer to be valid. Mammadov assured club directors that this was the case. Asked tentatively by the DNGC in April 2015 why Hilux rather than Baghlan had made the transfer, the club’s lawyer Laurent Schoenstein repeated Mammadov’s assurances.

As Schoenstein later told the OCCRP, to his amazement, the DNGC asked no follow-up questions. If DNGC were to have probed further, they would have found that Hilux – a company responsible for 16,000 transactions per day – was owned not by Mammadov but rather by an unaware Azerbaijani taxi driver who lived on a dilapidated poultry farm. They would have in turn found, via a widely publicised OCCRP report, that this was a mere front for corrupt Azerbaijani businessmen.

With the DNGC having just that summer punitively relegated the newly-promoted Ligue 2 side Luzenac AP to the fifth division merely for having a stadium unfit for France’s top two divisions1,  heavens knows what they would have done to Lens. As it was Mammadov left the club in 2016, selling his stake to the Luxembourg-based company Solferino.

A glimpse towards Lille’s industrial metropolis from a nearby motorway is sufficient to see that this windswept city belongs to the same family of towns as Sochaux or Lens. While in the labyrinth of alleyways and cobblestone streets that surround Lille’s medieval town centre, a city’s population is experiencing an economic renaissance; move east to the industrial suburb of Villeneuve-d’Ascq and you find another story. Home to Lille Olympique Sporting Club’s (LOSC) 50,000 capacity Ligue 1 stadium, 42 per cent of Villeneuve-d’Ascq’s population lives below the poverty line. In a district where even the light seems to glow bleaker, graffiti-laced storefronts declare: “This is Detroit! We kill the cops here.”

With the region’s slim post-industrial pickings enough to dissuade an Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour from investing in the club, the fans’ largest fear has instead been that the club would fall into the hands of a different kind of investor: a vulture capitalist. With the value of Ligue 1’s television rights expected to increase by 60 per cent to €1.2 billion by 2020, French clubs have become tasty portfolio additions akin to premium bonds. These bonds being set to pay out in 2020, vulture capitalists have no incentive to pursue sporting glory. Safe mediocrity is enough to redeem their investment. This is the difficult part to digest for fans.

When the Luxembourg businessman Gérard Lopez purchased LOSC in January 2017, he tried to swat away any whiff of vulture capitalism. He had paid the entire €70 million purchase independently of any bank loan or debt financing he told reporters, whilst his ‘LOSC Unlimited’ sporting project would see Lille in the Champions League again. This turned out to be inaccurate on both fronts. As Lopez eventually conceded to the broadsheet Luxemburger Wort, three quarters of the purchase price was funded by a loan from the American vulture capitalist group, Elliott Management.

Neither was the sporting project of ‘LOSC Unlimited’ exactly as presented. A leaked prospectus, written by the club’s director Marc Ingla and circulated to bidding Chinese investors, devoted four lines to LOSC’s sporting ambitions. By contrast, three pages explained how the club would maximise returns for investors by prioritising profitable player sales. Lille took this to the extreme. For the 2017-18 season, they recruited a starting 11 with the lowest average age of any club in Europe’s top five divisions. Most of the team had never played in Ligue 1. Predictably, by Christmas, the club was facing relegation.

Slowly, the club was beginning to mirror its environment. “Lille’s finances are an industrial-sized catastrophe,” a rival Ligue 1 club’s president told Le Monde in January 2018. The following month the DNGC provisionally relegated LOSC to Ligue 2 for the next season, unless Lopez could provide €150 million of bank guarantees. Lopez’s personal wealth, it was now apparent, was not as large as he had originally claimed. Partners at Lopez’s investment firm, Mangrove Capital, had long hinted at this, suggesting that the businessman had hugely overstated the profits he had made when investing in a young Estonian start-up called Skype in 2003.

With the club avoiding relegation on the pitch, off it Lopez came up with the magic funds. The bank JP Morgan bought a large portion of the club’s debt, allowing DNGC to approve its Ligue 1 license. JP Morgan’s assistance is less divine intervention as it is an ominous sign of things to come. For when Elliott Management provided funds to the Chinese investor Li Yonghong to purchase AC Milan, the first thing it did when it became convinced of Li’s insolvency was to arrange for JP Morgan to purchase the club’s debt. This suggests Elliott might now be the decision maker at LOSC. Considering the notorious lengths the fund goes to recuperate its investments – Elliott initiating three times more liquidation proceedings against its debtors than any comparable fund – JP Morgan’s intervention spell trouble. A python has been invited to this mouse party.

Barthes’s final essay in Mythologies is devoted to ‘The World of Wrestling’. He condemns a sport “in which the public has no interest in anything beyond the primary virtue of the pure spectacle, it cares not if the competition is rigged, nor for even the fairness of the fight.” The essay is one that could have been written of modern football. Many of us have been complicit in recent years in lauding the pure footballing spectacle of modern super clubs, whilst compartmentalising questions about their owners’ ethics or the broader competitive balance of the sport.

If we are to begin to ask these questions, however, perhaps we should begin not at the top but at the bottom. It is in those post-industrial cities whose populations could not have afforded a Citroën DS in 1956, cities where footballing fantasies help interrupt the everyday rhythm of suffering, that France’s mythological teams are most needed.