When FFP Goes Wrong
Luzenac’s promotion to the French second flight should have been a joyous fairy-story but it killed the club
The ball seemed to hang in the air for an age but Idriss Ech-Chergui studied the flight perfectly. As the lofted diagonal cross from the right touchline dropped at the edge of the penalty box, the 29-year-old journeyman midfielder drew back his left foot and sent a volley skipping into the corner of the Boulogne net. It was the goal that should have secured Luzenac AP promotion to Ligue 2 but instead it sentenced them to death.
After the 1-0 win, the dreadlocked midfielder Guy Ngosso led the celebrations in front of the modest home support at the Stade du Courbet and in the dressing-room champagne was raucously sprayed. This should have been one of the most remarkable achievements in French footballing history. Luzenac, hailing from a village with a population a handful over 600, were set for the second flight. The club was well set financially, with the president Jérôme Ducros bankrolling the side sufficiently to prevent any debt accruing and planning on building a professional base in the Pyrenees to challenge Toulouse – the only side of note within 100km.
Five months later, the Amateur Football Association of France (AFFA) wrote the obituary of the club, explaining the unexpected and rather brutal hardship that followed. “Luzenac are a symbol of amateur football sacrificed on the altar of contempt,” read the statement from Éric Thomas, president of the AFFA. “Today, a certain idea of football, that of morals, ethics and justice, is dead, murdered by those who are supposed to defend its values.
“The mission of the Professional League (LFP) was simple: to make it possible for Luzenac to attain professional status by helping with their structure. Everything has been done to prevent this promotion! Therefore, the AFFA demands the immediate resignation of the president of the LFP.”
That statement was released on September 11, fewer than 24 hours after the final nail had been hammered into Luzenac’s coffin. They were indeed offered the opportunity to play in a new league, but it was not Ligue 2 as hoped. Instead it was CFA2 – the fifth rung of the game, two divisions lower than they had spent the previous season. Luzenac may have won their battle on the field, but those in power in French football proved unmoved by their romantic tale.
Ducros had worked hard to put together a formidable staff from which to build his project. A successful businessman who earned his fortune building houses, his vision was to construct a club for the south-west region, not one simply reliant on the small local population. This was reflected in a name change in 2012, when US Luzenac became Luzenac Ariège Pyrénées. The former Marseille, Manchester United and France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, attracted by the prospect of such a team near his hometown of Lavelanet, was drafted in as sporting director. A series of (relatively) big names followed. Among them were the top-scorer Andé Dona Ndoh, who would lead the goal charts by eight at the end of the season, and Nicolas Dieuze, who made more than 150 appearances in Ligue 1 for Toulouse.
There was also the former USA Under-20 goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who had been part of the Evian side that had shocked Marseille in the Coupe de France in 2011. He had come through the famous Clairefontaine academy, where he had worked with Hatem Ben Arfa and Abou Diaby, and had been part of the USA squad for the 2005 U20 World Cup.
It may have been modest, but it was a strong foundation from which the club could rise further after becoming the smallest team ever to play in the third tier when they won promotion in 2009.
On the evening that promotion was clinched, Luzenac topped the standings but they were overhauled by Orléans on the penultimate weekend of the season. That disappointment was soon forgotten.
All seemed satisfactory on May 30, when the fixture list for Ligue 2 was produced. There were Luzenac, scheduled to play Troyes at home on the opening day of the season, although admittedly it was not yet known where ‘home’ was going to be.
Even before a top-three finish in the Championnat National was secured, officials from the LFP had visited Luzenac’s temporary home in Foix and had judged it unsuitable for the professional ranks. The village’s Stade Paul Fedou was completely out of the question, despite holding nearly three times the population of the settlement at 1,600. A deal, however, seemed to be struck quickly with the rugby union side Stade Toulousain, under which the Stade Ernest-Wallon would be used as a medium-term fix.
But on June 5 the financial watchdog of the French professional game, the Direction Nationale de Contrôle et de Gestion (DNGC), denied the minnows entry into Ligue 2. Ducros, who had saved the club from extinction only a couple of years earlier, steadfastly declared he was “confident” an appeal would be successful. Nearly a full month passed before that was heard, conveniently under the cover of France’s World Cup quarter-final against Germany which took place the following day.
That the FFF had rejected Luzenac’s budget once more was met with overt frustration by the club’s president. “It’s a simple story of cash,” he told the local paper, La Dépêche. “I didn’t even get a letter informing me about the decision. I had to hear about it in the media and on the internet… it is shameful to treat us like this.”
There was less than a month until the season started and, with LAP filing an appeal to go to the CNOSF, France’s sporting court, there was still some distance to run. Another fortnight passed before Luzenac were again rebuffed, with the club “shocked and stupefied” by the decision. An accountant had demonstrated that there was “no hole in the budget” and that “balanced accounts had been validated by an auditor”.
“People high up didn’t want to see Luzenac in the second division,” Westberg explained. “Everything was good, the finances were good, everything was ready… Everything was falling into place and it just felt like there was some Luzenac bashing. We really felt we were being cheated.
“We felt like we had everybody against us. It was hard to believe at first. We didn’t know what to believe from a player’s perspective. We wondered if our president and our club were doing the right thing.
“The president told us: ‘It’s incredible what’s happening to us. It’s really political. We meet all the criteria to play in Ligue 2. We need to show them that the club has done everything we can to play in the second division. I will go all the way to have justice prevail.’”
When Ligue 2 kicked off on August 1, it did so in confusion. Luzenac had, hours earlier, won their final appeal at the Administrative Court of Toulouse and Ligue 2 seemed poised to go ahead in a bizarre 21-team format after the DNGC finally ratified their budget the following Wednesday.
But hope was short-lived and, within 24 hours, LAP had their dreams dashed again by the politicians at the LFP, who appeared keen to avoid the embarrassment of an inflated league after David had overcome Goliath in the courtroom. “The club does not have a stadium meeting the regulatory safety standards,” the League decreed after an emergency meeting. “The club has not taken the necessary steps to play in such a stadium throughout the season.”
“They don’t want Luzenac among the pros,” Barthez claimed in an interview with L’Équipe.
Ducros was more forthright. “Frédéric Thiriez [president of the LFP] is a liar,” he said on August 8. “From the beginning he did everything he could to prevent Luzenac playing in Ligue 2. He never wanted us.”
In the meantime, the city of Toulouse was doing its best to accommodate the village team. While upgrade work was carried out on the Stade Ernest-Wallon, permission was granted on May 30 for Luzenac to ground-share at the Stadium Municipal with the city’s Ligue 1 side.
But three weeks into the season the club still did not know in which league they would be competing. This also worried Les Amis du Stade Toulousain, the owners of the Stade Ernest-Wallon, who understandably were unwilling to sign a contract for any upgrade work until the future of LAP was made plain.
Government officials began to take an interest, leading the Secretary of State for Sport Thierry Braillard to say, “It is a kind of hypocrisy from the League that prevents a team ascending from the amateur world to the professional one.”
Meanwhile, L’Équipe published a statement from an anonymous source “close to the case”, who asked, “What does Ducros want? The money from television rights – that’s all!”
Ducros had previously put money into Toulouse’s Ligue 1 side, helped fund Barthez’s successful post-football motor-racing career and also backed Aviron Toulousain, a rowing club. While some outside the club sought to disparage the ambitious owner, who had been at the centre of a registration scandal in a previous stint with Toulouse Football Croix-Daurade, those closest to him spoke only in the highest terms. “Jérôme is honest, passionate and emotional. He can sometimes get carried away because he loves the club and its players,” Barthez had said.
The 46-year-old investor admitted he was after television money, but insisted it was not for nefarious purposes. “Without television rights, half the clubs would disappear,” he said. “The money will be used to fill the increased gap between the payroll and the other sources of income.”
It proved to be a source of revenue Ducros would never see.
On August 27, a decisive blow was landed. Without a concrete plan for a stadium in place, the LFP once again turned down the club’s appeal to be involved in Ligue 2. The CNOSF, who had on August 22 supported Luzenac on this issue, performed an about turn, arguing no deal for the Stade Ernest-Wallon had been finalised.
Without assurances of Ligue 2 football, though, this was impossible for Luzenac to achieve. Catch 22.
The rugby world also had its doubts about the groundshare. Although the LFP had ensured in the preliminary fixture lists that Toulouse and Luzenac were never at home on the same weekend, Stade Toulousain’s calendar produced by the national Rugby Federation had not been so considerate and had thrown up four fixture clashes even before potential cup matches were placed in the equation.
“The problem with Luzenac is extremely simple. How can you participate in a professional league without a stadium?” Thiriez argued.“Their current stadium does not meet safety standards and the alternative they offered, the Stade Ernest-Wallon, does not meet the safety standards of the LFP and FFF. And anyway, they still have no agreement with Stade Toulousain.
“The first obligation of the League is to ensure public safety. We could not make any other decision.
“I am sad for the Luzenac players, who won the right to play Ligue 2 on the field, but they have to question the management of the club, which has been unable to fulfil its responsibilities.”
Strangely, the stadium had previously been deemed fit to host France’s Under-21 side when they drew 1-1 with the Netherlands in November 2013 (the fixture attracted 4,867 spectators – significantly more than LAP could hope to attain with regularity) and copes with a rugby public of nearly 20,000 on a frequent basis.
Luzenac insisted they had done everything required of them to win promotion and accused the LFP of “misleading” the public. Predictably, the claim fell upon deaf ears.
Accusations of amateurism were fired at the club, who would later admit they were not necessarily “prepared for their sudden arrival in the spotlight”.
There was to be another twist. With the second flight also well underway before the procrastinating of the appeals process was finally over, Luzenac would not even be offered their previous place back. Instead they were cast to the CFA2. Their crime? Unspecified.
Automatic promotion would not even be guaranteed back to the National after a season, and for Ducros and Barthez that proved too much.
On the evening of September 10, they called a meeting with the club’s professionals and announced that they were all released from their contracts. Although it is possible for those players to join clubs as free agents outside the transfer window, the financial reality is that most teams, having already built their squads in the summer, do not have the budget to invest any further.
Luzenac, however, did not die completely. The team lives on in the reserves, who play in the obscure Division Honneur Régionale.
Understandably, the FFF and the LFP have come under fire for their approach, particularly when it was set against the backdrop of bigger teams earning what appeared to be unjust reprieves.
Valenciennes, fresh from top-flight relegation, were very nearly liquidated over the summer. However, an eleventh-hour pitch saved the club and allowed them the opportunity to start the season in Ligue 2. That they had only 14 professional players – one of whom was out with a long-term injury – days before the season started and had therefore been unable to play any pre-season matches seemed of little concern to the powers that be.
An even more controversial case came in the form of Racing Club de Lens, a former powerhouse of the French game from the north east. Having won promotion to Ligue 1, their budget was rejected by the DNGC, who advised that there was a €10 million deficit that needed to be covered by the owner Hafiz Mammadov, an Azeri business man who also has a stake in Sheffield Wednesday.
The president Gervais Martel hinted in an interview with France 2 that the gap may never be bridged when he said, “Mammadov is very annoyed by the request of the DNGC.”
Ultimately, the money did not arrive and Lens were forced to put forward a new budget of only €38m, which was grudgingly accepted by the CNOSF at the appeals stage. Despite the reprieve, such was the state of Lens’s finances that they were placed under a transfer embargo until a payment of €4m was received by the League, which still holds at the time of writing. Indeed, Lens could not even have a new contract ratified for the centre-back Alaeddine Yahia, who subsequently left the club for SM Caen.
Grave doubts over Mammadov had been earlier voiced by Olivier Richard, president of the DNGC, to Radio Monte Carlo. “There is a good chance that Lens will have viability problems before the end of the season if there is no new investment.”
“You have serious concerns over the financial capacity of Mammadov today?” Richard was asked by the interviewer.
“Oh yes,” came the stern answer.
The kicker for Luzenac, however, is that Lens did not even have an agreement in place over their stadium plans. Forced out of their Stade Félix-Bollaert due to renovation work being carried out, no deal for them to play at Amiens’s Stade de la Licorne was finalised until five days after they were admitted to Ligue 1. An independent credit review published in October by the US-based markets and risk specialists McGraw Hill Financial gave Lens the poorest score of 44 publicly listed clubs in the whole of Europe.
It’s a shambolic situation that seems to fly in the face of the DNGC’s safeguards, which they were so keen to uphold in the Luzenac case.
Lens had trump cards that LAP didn’t. Although they hail from a town of fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, their crowd is renowned for being one of the most passionate and colourful in France. Indeed, the Félix-Bollaert holds 41,000, is regularly close to full and, crucially, will host games at Euro 2016. To damage such a club by denying them promotion would be a dangerous political stance for the league.
Luzenac had little such muscle behind them, although their plight was embraced countrywide as the nation’s football supporters very publically questioned the ‘égalité’ clause in the national motto of France. “It was a piece of cake for them [Lens] to win their appeal,” Westberg lamented. “The DNGC is sanctioned by the FFF and the LFP, and they just make their decisions together. We didn’t have the same treatment at all. It was pretty crazy for us to see that Valenciennes were saved after they almost exploded but for us everything was an incredible struggle.”
The Rennes defender Cheick M’Bengue and the Bordeaux winger Nicolas Maurice-Belay both voiced support for the club in post-match interviews and fans of other clubs were sympathetic. Toulouse’s ‘Indians’ supporters group was one of many in the professional ranks to show their solidarity with Luzenac by unfurling banners hitting out at the LFP’s actions.
“Firstly, it is a matter close to our heart on a purely sporting level,” Yves, a leader of the group, explained.“Then there is the scheming and tricks [of the LFP and FFF] that we want to show we denounce. Football is a mafia hungry for profit; it does not respect sporting criteria.”
Thiriez has rejected suggestions of favouritism towards more marketable teams. “This accusation is unacceptable,” he said. “Each year, we have small clubs that go from the Championnat National to Ligue 2 and we apply the same treatment to them all.
“US Orléans are a good example. They work in compliance with all the safety standards.
“Why are Luzenac unable to comply with conditions accepted by other clubs? I reject the argument that there are different standards being applied.”
Westberg acknowledges that his club could have been better prepared but believes Luzenac have been treated extremely badly. “Not everything was necessarily done well,” he confessed. “But you have to know if the penalty is fitting for your mistakes.”
And of the players’ belief in sporting integrity? “This is the greatest paradox for me. Those people who put the spoke in our wheels are the same ones who complain about the image of the players at the top of the ladder. These are the people who criticised what happened in 2010 [when France’s World Cup side staged an infamous revolt against the head coach Raymond Domenech] and these are the people who create a scandal when a player wears headphones.
“Especially here in France, people criticise footballers for their lack of loyalty and their lack of attachment to their club. That’s the opposite here. We really fought for the club and stood by the club. The club did everything they could to stand by us, too. [The leaders of the game] talk about the image and values of sport, but they are able to deny us promotion on more or less arbitrary points. For me, sporting integrity has been done no justice.
“I’ve got the impression it’s increasingly hard [for small clubs] to find a place in the sun. In 15 years as a club, Guingamp managed to climb to Ligue 1 because there were not as many economic and structural barriers. Now they are a Ligue 1 club in a town of only 6,000 inhabitants. Today, that would maybe be impossible.”
Guingamp’s unlikely rise was achieved in the 1990s, their side graced by players of the calibre of Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Laurent Koscielny, and as they compete in the Europa League this term they stand as a monument to what Luzenac wished to achieve.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain were one of a handful of high-profile clubs deemed to have flouted Uefa’s differing set of FFP rules over the course of the last year. Their punishment has been far more manageable and, in Westberg’s eyes, there is a two-tiered system that counts against smaller clubs.“I knew football had become political since so much money came into the game,” he admitted. “Any club that has good politics and fine lobbying will find that things are going to fall into place for them, whatever the rules.
“We had the system against us and we set an example towards the rest. You have to fight for what you want and you must never give up, although the system might be crooked at some points. What we experienced definitely wasn’t a fair deal.”
The Luzenac saga should, however, produce a crumb of good as it will force the FFF to establish a swifter judicial process with fewer levels of appeal and far swifter turnaround times.“It is necessary to simplify the chain of litigation,” the politician Jean Glavany wrote. “Recent economic situations have shown how the duration of the appeal proceedings, mediation and litigation is hardly conducive to the sustainability of structures, the interests of the players or the resources of local communities.”
Remarkably, that passage comes from a report dated January 2014: it predicted such problems as Luzenac suffered. Had the Sports Minister Valérie Fourneyron not resigned in April, a safety net may have been put in place in time to save LAP.
Now there is a push for a three-tiered reform system. Thierry Braillard is lobbying for club budgets to be completed at the end of March, as opposed to June, while it has also been suggested that clubs should know whether they have the right to promotion before the preceding season is finished. Finally, a streamlined appeal process is likely to be established.
Westberg, meanwhile, is counting the human cost of the Luzenac tale. Like many of his teammates, he is unemployed and receives financial support from the French government and admits that with a young family he is ready to listen to any offers. “We know very well we’re not in a position to choose,” the goalkeeper said. “We’re not at all in control of our destiny.
“I wish no football player to experience what we’ve been through. It’s like you’re taking away the nice results. It’s like a bunch of white collars decide what they want to do with their league. It’s totally unfair but it’s exactly what happened. We had special treatment – and it was not good.”
Luzenac’s experience must serve as a lesson that FFP is not a panacea. Livelihoods far more vulnerable than those enjoyed by multimillionaire players are sometimes at stake.