The French clubs being bought – and distorted – by Premier League teams

The message from the Tribune Ouest, home of the self-styled Ultra Boys 90, is loud and clear.

Half an hour into Racing Strasbourg’s home game against OGC Nice, a huge banner is unfurled: “Non a la multipropriete” (“No to multi-ownership”).

One of the Ultra Boys, Strasbourg’s most vocal supporters, grabs a megaphone and issues an impassioned diatribe against multi-club ownership — his message reverberating all over the Stade de la Meinau as the match is going on.

Flags are defiantly waved with the slogan “BlueCo out!”. Another has a red diagonal line through the word “BlueCo”, meaning access is forbidden.

There follows a loud rendition of “BlueCo, casse-toi”, a phrase that can be translated as anything between “Get lost” and “F*** off”, depending on the tone. The tone here definitely seems to pitch it at the more hostile end of the spectrum.

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Strasbourg’s supporters make their feelings known (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

The match is a late-season Ligue 1 encounter, but there is more at stake than just points. For supporters of these two teams and a growing number of others across France and beyond, the real battle right now is for their clubs’ souls.

Nobody in Strasbourg had heard of BlueCo until the announcement last June that a consortium by that name, led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, had just paid €76.3million (£65.2m; $81.7m) for a 99.97 per cent stake in their club.

It was presented by BlueCo as a “strategic investment” to “further our presence in European football alongside our ownership of Chelsea” and “create huge opportunities to share knowledge and expertise”.

It went down like a lead balloon — as did Strasbourg’s performances and results for much of this season. Relegation concerns have been eased by a recent improvement, but they lie 13th in Ligue 1 with a team that is, by BlueCo’s design, young and extremely short of experience.

The French team’s supporters, led by the vocal Ultra Boys 90 group, have spent the past months in open revolt against BlueCo, organising protest marches and issuing angry statements warning that “multi-club is killing football”.

“It’s satellisation,” says Strasbourg fan Charly Oswald, 33, outside the stadium — the point being that his club, founded in 1906, has been relaunched as a satellite of Chelsea. “The club no longer has the same purpose, the same soul. And the way things are going, in a few years, every club in Ligue 1 will be like this.”

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Oswald (right) and friend outside the stadium (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

Oswald is right.

Nine of Ligue 1’s 18 clubs are now part of a multi-club group (along with two in Ligue 2), whether that is as the senior partner (like Paris Saint-Germain, whose owner Qatar Sports Investment has a 21.67 per cent stake in Portuguese club Braga) or as a satellite (like Strasbourg or Lorient, who have joined Premier League club Bournemouth as part of the Black Knight Football and Entertainment group, which also owns the Vegas Golden Knights ice hockey franchise).

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Fans are always urged to embrace the opportunities multi-club ownership provides, with a vast network of scouts and recruitment experts striving to supply their club with the best young players from across the world.

Look at RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, those behind the multi-club model say. Look at Manchester City and their thriving Spanish partner club Girona. Look at it as a win-win. Or even as a win-win-win.

But even for those who are happy to overlook the ethical questions — about the integrity of the game, the integrity of competitions and even, at the most basic level, the integrity of a club’s identity — there is an uncomfortable truth.

The more this phenomenon spreads, the more teams in multi-club networks will inevitably end up among the also-rans or worse. That is hard for a fanbase to accept at any time, let alone when their club’s identity and purpose have been changed overnight — and when, rather than win-win-win, they lose-lose-lose.



Chelsea, Strasbourg, BlueCo and a multi-club model yet to convince a sceptical fanbase

It’s Tuesday evening in Troyes, a charming town in the Champagne region of France, just under 100 miles east of Paris.

Like Strasbourg, the town has a wonderfully preserved medieval centre: half-timbered buildings that look like they belong in a fairytale.

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Troyes (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

When it was announced in September 2020 that Troyes — little Troyes, a plucky underdog but not one of French football’s grandes equipes — had been bought by City Football Group (CFG), many of their fans felt their dreams had come true.

“We were happy,” says Troyes supporter Benjamin Rund, 22, standing outside the Stade de l’Aube. “We needed financial investment and we thought we would get some really good players from City Group and this would help us be successful, to get back to Ligue 1 and stay there.”

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Rund outside the Stade de l’Aube (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

Troyes were promoted to Ligue 1 in their first season under CFG’s ownership and finished 15th in 2021-22.

But then came relegation last season, with only four wins in 38 matches, followed by what has been an awful campaign in Ligue 2 that leaves them in grave danger of dropping down to the third tier, the Championnat National.

“It’s unthinkable,” Rund says.

It is all the more so because, under CFG’s ownership, Troyes have spent far more money in the transfer market than at any time in their history, signing two exciting Brazilian teenagers — midfielder Metinho from Fluminese and winger Savio from Atletico Mineiro — as well as talents from Ecuador (defender Jackson Porozo from Portuguese club Boavista), Sweden (winger Amar Fatah from AIK Solna) and Guinea-Bissau (winger Mama Balde from French club Dijon).

“Some really talented players,” Rund says. “But Metinho signed three years ago and we have never seen him. He is on loan in the Netherlands (at Sparta Rotterdam). Savio signed two years ago, but we have never seen him in Troyes and we never will.”

Savio has never kicked a ball for Troyes, having spent last season on loan to Dutch club PSV Eindhoven and this season at CFG’s Spanish club, Girona. This summer he is firmly expected to join Manchester City in a projected £20million-plus deal that will bring Troyes a huge profit, but raise more questions locally about the French club’s role within the CFG network.

“They are our two biggest transfers and they have never played for us,” Rund says. “We have signed extraordinary players, but one of them is playing for a top team in La Liga. And for me, it is proof that our club is just a business now. It’s ‘Let’s sign a player and try to make a profit as quickly as possible’. But here in Troyes, we are struggling. We are having a really hard time.”

Due to a restructuring of the French league, four teams will be relegated from Ligue 2 this season. Going into Tuesday’s game against Pau, Troyes are in the relegation zone, four points adrift of safety with five games remaining. The situation looks desperate.

On stage at the SALT Conference in New York in September 2022, a few months after fronting the consortium that bought Chelsea from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in a deal worth £4.25billion, Boehly ruffled a few feathers and created headlines back in London.

The biggest media reaction at the time was to his suggestion that what English football really needs is an All-Star game like those in American sports.

But far more interesting and far more relevant were his comments about wanting to join CFG, Red Bull and a growing number of other investors in building a multi-club network.

“I think our goal is to make sure we can show pathways for our young superstars to get onto the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time,” Boehly said. “And for me, the way to do that is through another club, somewhere in a really competitive league in Europe.

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Boehly addresses the conference (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“And because of Brexit (…) we need GBEs (governing body endorsements), which are basically points that you get for playing in different leagues. And the more points you get, the more caps you play, the more national teams, the easier it is to immigrate. So (…) what we need is a place to put our 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to develop them, somewhere in Portugal or Belgium or somewhere like that. Get them the points they need and also get them out of South America (…) and then get them on the pitch in Chelsea.”



It might be harmless but Boehly’s All-Star game idea comes from a dangerous place

Some within football like to sugarcoat the multi-club idea, but Boehly made no attempt to disguise the motivation — “a place to put” young players, “somewhere in Portugal or Belgium or somewhere like that” while waiting for them to accumulate the experience or the GBE points needed before they can play in the Premier League.

Diplomatic it was not, but in a nutshell, that is the purpose of buying a club in Belgium, Portugal, France, Italy, Spain or elsewhere in Europe.

Some of CFG’s clubs, in China and India in particular, serve a clear commercial purpose — and perhaps with it wider strategic benefits for the group’s owners in Abu Dhabi.


Those in the United States (New York City FC), Japan (Yokohama F Marinos) and Australia (Melbourne City) are perceived to have potential sporting benefits as well as commercial.

In South America (Bahia in Brazil, Montevideo City Torque in Uruguay), it is all about gaining access to the most thriving talent pools in world football.

In Europe, it is again about facilitating access to local players, but also creating what Brian Marwood, CFG’s managing director of global football, has described as “a potential development platform for our young talent”.

It has not been about finding a finishing school for Manchester City’s homegrown players, most of whom have stayed at the club or gone on loan to English clubs. The priority has been to find different clubs at which to place the dozens of promising young players signed by CFG from all over the world, but particularly from South America.

The ultimate goal has been to develop players for Manchester City’s first team, but that has so far proved easier said than done, such is the standard required by Pep Guardiola. But, in many cases, players have ended up sold for profit. One of many examples is Brazilian midfielder Douglas Luiz, who joined Manchester City from Vasco da Gama in 2017 and spent two seasons on loan at Girona before being sold to Aston Villa in a £15million deal in 2019.

In some ways, it is the logical extension of what happened in the 2000s, when Sir Alex Ferguson used to keep a flipchart in his office with a record of all the homegrown players Manchester United had sold for profit — quite apart from those who had ended up in his first team.

But it seems so much more cynical now across the game, with so many clubs being taken over and run for the presumed benefit of a bigger club and, ultimately, a bigger ownership group. It’s football, but not as we knew it.



The City Football Group: a special report

A few streets away from La Petite France, the city’s medieval heart, lies the Strasbourg club shop, which is empty when The Athletic arrives on a Saturday afternoon.

Smack bang in the middle of the window display is a sticker that says “Scheiss BlueCo” — a slogan which, as well as hostility towards Chelsea’s owners, reflects the German culture that persists in the city, just two miles from the border and occupied by Germany at different stages in the past.

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A “Scheiss BlueCo” sticker at the Strasbourg club shop (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

If there is any Strasbourg fan who is more open to the idea of multi-club ownership, it seems likely to be someone buying merchandise from the club shop.

A few customers arrive. One is a Nancy supporter, here to buy a present for a relative. He would rather chat about Michel Platini, “the greatest French footballer of all time”, than Strasbourg.

But the next customer, Maxime Meyer, is happy to talk. He feels he has a less emotional, more pragmatic perspective about BlueCo than most of his fellow fans.

“Almost the entire team was replaced with young players and the results have been too slow to arrive, but since then it has started to develop little by little,” Meyer says. “Is it going to be a good thing in the future? Hard to say. But I think we should see how it evolves over the next year or two.

“If it’s just a showcase for players who are going to leave the club, then that is a showcase for Chelsea. But if we see Strasbourg perform better, maybe at European level again, we might tell ourselves it was worth it. It will depend on results.”

What about the question of identity?

“The club’s identity has been stale in recent years,” he says. “Naturally, as fans, we are suspicious. But we just have to wait and see.”

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Meyer offers a slightly different perspective (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

It is not the majority view. There are chants of “BlueCo casse-toi” on the tram to the stadium the next day. Another “Scheiss BlueCo” sticker has been slapped on the door of the media entrance.

Inside the stadium, there are letters plastered on pillars calling multi-club ownership a “perversion of the very nature of football and sport” and warning that it “can directly affect the short-term competitive profile of clubs, with some being used as a development platform without a clear ambition to improve long-term sporting results”.

“Beyond the loss of independence and identity of each club entering into multi-ownership, the scale of the phenomenon also calls into question the independence of French football and weakens its place in European football,” the letter says. “The risk is real: if tomorrow all Ligue 1 clubs become subsidiaries of English clubs, this will pose problems in terms of competitiveness, spectacle and performance in our championship.”

Similar concerns were raised by Lorient supporters when their club effectively became a junior partner to Bournemouth in the Black Knight group in January last year. The Merlus Ultras 1995 group said it was “out of the question that we become a vulgar satellite club, a simple training centre of the English parent company”.

Those concerns were heightened when Lorient sold their winger Dango Ouattara to Bournemouth two weeks later. They have always been a club which develops and sells talent — previous seasons had seen the sales of Yoane Wissa to Brentford and Ilan Meslier to Leeds United — but it had now begun to look like an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Like Strasbourg and Troyes, Lorient have been left with one of the youngest squads in European football. They were sixth in Ligue 1 when they were bought by Black Knight. Barely a year later, they are 17th in an 18-team division and facing the threat of relegation with three games to go.

And as Troyes supporters would bitterly testify, bouncing back from relegation to Ligue 2 is not as easy as might have been imagined.

As the final whistle approaches at the Stade de l’Aube, Troyes are on course for three precious points in their relegation battle. From 1-0 down they are 2-1 up, equalising through teenage academy graduate Kyliane Dong and taking the lead through 23-year-old midfielder Mouhamed Diop, a CFG acquisition, seven minutes later.

All evening, the atmosphere has been cheerier than anticipated — thanks in no small part to discounted ticket prices (just €5) and the number of children in attendance.

But the upbeat atmosphere changes when Pau equalise in stoppage time. A 2-2 draw leaves Troyes three points behind 16th-placed Annecy, who have a superior goal difference. With four games left, the threat of relegation to the Championnat National looms ever larger.

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David Guion addresses the media (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

The consensus among fans is that the team’s problems can be traced back to the dismissal of promotion-winning coach Bruno Irles in November 2022, when Troyes were 13th in Ligue 1.

Irles was replaced by Patrick Kisnorbo, who had won two A-League championships with CFG’s Australian club Melbourne City. He was expected to impose a playing style more in keeping with the CFG ideology, but the appointment was a disaster, with Troyes winning just three of his 40 games in charge. Results have picked up slightly under his replacement David Guion, but not enough.

The local newspaper, L’Est Eclair, says relegation would be “catastrophic” for Troyes, but it says the silence from the club’s management and ownership “gives the feeling — perhaps incorrect — that the Trojan catastrophism is not shared in Manchester”.

The club’s former president, Aymeric Magne, was dismissed last August after being found guilty of domestic violence. “Now we have a new president (former player Gael Sanz) and a director general (Mattijs Manders) who lives in the Netherlands and doesn’t know how the land is here in Troyes,” says L’Est Eclair football writer Christophe Mallet. “And we — media, fans — never hear from them. Maybe once.”

Mallet describes the club’s structure as a mille-feuille, a reference to the multi-layered French dessert. “That is to say we have the feeling that all decisions have to go all the way to Manchester and then back again,” he says. “The people here don’t seem to have the capacity to make decisions.

“And ultimately, Troyes is just a small part of City Group. Troyes are in crisis, but they’re only a small problem for City Group. A stone in their shoe.”

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The CFG and Troyes badges inside the Stade de l’Aube (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

In Manchester, they maintain the crisis in France is being taken deadly seriously. One figure within CFG suggests the situation at Troyes causes him and his colleagues sleepless nights in a way that Manchester City, serene under Pep Guardiola, never do.

As if to underline that seriousness, CFG chief executive Ferran Soriano planned to lead a high-powered delegation to attend the game against Pau and hold a series of strategic meetings.

Soriano was forced to pull out three days before the visit, citing a clash of commitments and sending his apologies, but several other CFG executives and officials were in attendance, led by Brian Marwood, the group’s managing director of global football.

Marwood and his CFG colleagues spent the first half of last week in a series of meetings with the Troyes staff, discussing what has gone wrong and how they intend to put it right — whether they stay up or not.

The weekend comes and Troyes pick up another point, drawing 0-0 away to Amiens. But Annecy, their rivals in the relegation battle, beat Bastia 3-2. That leaves Troyes four points adrift of safety with only three games to go.

Relegation to Ligue 2 last season was a serious blow, but one that CFG felt could be overcome if they could help Troyes bounce back quickly. Nobody imagined a scenario where Troyes would be at risk a year later of tumbling down to the third tier.

But Troyes’ purpose within CFG has been compromised by relegation to Ligue 2, hence the number of players loaned out last summer to continue their development — and, one suspects, preserve their market value — by playing at a higher level.

One of them, winger Alexis Tbidi, is on loan at Manchester City, playing for their under-21 team, while Troyes struggle in Ligue 2.

In several cases (most notably Savio), Ligue 2 was deemed unsuitable for a player’s development because it is regarded as less technical and more physical than Ligue 1. And if that is the case for the second tier, such concerns would be compounded severely by relegation to the third.

From a player-development perspective, having a club in the Championnat National is entirely at odds with CFG’s strategy even before you consider the PR damage for a group that has been understandably keen to trumpet the success of its clubs, not just Manchester City but also Girona, Melbourne City and others.

What happens if Troyes are relegated? CFG say they will redouble their efforts to put things right, but fans like Rund worry that their club is already adrift. “We feel like the club has lost identity,” he says. “We feel like we’re lost in the middle of the ocean.”

Strasbourg have a proud history, albeit more recently characterised by dramas on the pitch (four relegations this century) and off it. After years of financial problems and turmoil in the boardroom, they were relegated to the third-tier Championnat National in 2010. A year later they were liquidated and had to start again in CFA2, French football’s regionalised, amateur fifth tier.

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Strasbourg (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

By 2017, four promotions later, they were back in Ligue 1. They even won the French Cup in 2019 and finished sixth in the league in 2022. Relegation worries were never too far away, but under the presidency of their former player Marc Keller, Strasbourg seemed to be in a happy enough place.

All that changed with the sale to BlueCo. Unlike in Troyes, the fanbase expressed scepticism and hostility from the start.

Strasbourg spent at an unprecedented level last summer, with more than €50million on five new players (Ivory Coast defender Abakar Sylla from Club Bruges, Netherlands under-21 forward Emanuel Emegha from Austrian club Sturm Graz, Guinea defender Saidou Sow from Saint-Etienne, and the French duo Junior Mwanga and Dilane Bakwa from Bordeaux) as well as the arrival of Brazilian winger Angelo Gabriel on loan from Chelsea, later joined by midfielder Andrey Santos.

BlueCo have also helped support the €160m renovation of the Stade de la Meinau, which is due for completion in 2026.

But many supporters feel their club is now being run almost entirely for Chelsea’s — or BlueCo’s — benefit. All seven of the aforementioned signings are aged 21 or under. On several occasions this season, they have fielded line-ups with an average age of under 23. Exciting on one hand, but less so if those players are being developed purely for shop-window purposes or, if a congested pathway allows, being groomed for Chelsea’s first team.

Strasbourg are the better team for half an hour against Nice, taking the lead through Bakwa, but they look fragile. If Chelsea’s main problems this season have been naivety and fragility, they are mirrored at their partner club.

Andrey Santos, sent here in January to gain the first-team experience he was deemed unready for while on loan at Nottingham Forest, shows glimpses of quality, but he does not stand out the way he is said to have done when catching the eye of Chelsea’s scouts while playing in Brazil for Vasco da Gama.

“For someone who hasn’t played a lot in the previous six months, I think he’s doing well,” Strasbourg coach Patrick Vieira says afterwards. “He has a lot of qualities. Unfortunately, we lacked a bit of technical accuracy to be even more decisive, but he is a very interesting player and I think he’s developing. He’s making progress and that is a good thing.”

But it is a concern when, with so many young players, a team looks like it has been assembled entirely with development and resale in mind. Seven of Strasbourg’s starting XI are aged 22 or under. Is it any wonder that in his post-match press conference, Vieira — not unlike Mauricio Pochettino at Chelsea this season — finds himself lamenting poor decision-making and a lack of know-how?

“When you see the number of players who played this season, when you see we are among the youngest teams in Europe, when you see there are a lot of players who are in the process of discovering this level of competition in Ligue 1, we can say it is a project that is following its path,” Vieira says. “We have not been consistent, but overall we are doing the maximum with the shortcomings we have.”

Emegha, 21, makes a promising start at centre-forward but he fades and ends up being whistled by sections of the crowd when he is substituted — unfairly cast, it seems, as a symbol of the BlueCo project, asked to fill the goalscoring void left by Habib Diallo, who was sold to Saudi Pro League club Al Shabab after scoring 20 league goals last season.

Keller, who has stayed on as president, takes issue with what he calls the “caricature” of Strasbourg’s strategy under their new ownership.

“People call it the BlueCo project, but in reality, it is the project we already had at the club,” he told L’Equipe in March. “We wanted to take a step forward and this project is boosted by BlueCo. If I stayed, it’s because I believe in it. Change is scary and it’s a big change… (but) we are not in a pyramid scheme. Chelsea is a ‘brother’ club — not above us but next to us.”

Nice are part of a multi-club network, too, but until now it has been as the senior partner, sending various players on loan to Lausanne Sport but taking only one in the opposite direction – Senegalese winger Aliou Balde.

It has not obviously affected the club’s strategy, let alone dictated it.

Their fans hope that doesn’t change now Ratcliffe is so immersed in Manchester United.

Multi-club ownership is just another of those governance issues that football didn’t seem to wake up to until it was too late.

UEFA finally sounded an alarm in its annual club licensing report in February 2023, warning that the phenomenon “has the potential to pose a material threat to the integrity of European club competitions” and to “distort transfer activity, with an increasing percentage of transfers within multi-club investment groups at prices that suit investors rather than at fair values”.

But UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin sounded almost relaxed on the subject in an interview with Gary Neville’s Overlap podcast a month later, suggesting it might be time to relax the rules on multi-club ownership rather than tighten them.

If, as is likely, Manchester City and Girona qualify for next season’s Champions League, CFG expect to be able to persuade UEFA that they are sufficiently distinct — structurally and operationally — to be allowed to compete against each other. If structural changes are required to satisfy UEFA, they are expected to take place, as happened with RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg.



Explained: Could Girona cost Manchester City their Champions League place next season?

So many of the objections to multi-club ownership relate to the integrity of competitions, but at a deeper level, there are far more serious questions about what it means for European football, where so much of the game’s wealth and talent — far more than ever before — is now concentrated and controlled among a small handful of super-rich clubs.

Multi-club ownership entrenches that inequality to an even greater extent. Clubs that have existed for more than a century, some of them with a notable history of success, are being colonised by bigger clubs, reducing them to satellite status.

The concern is that they will find themselves developing players not as a means to an end, as before, but as an end in itself — not to chase their own ambitions but to satisfy the financial objectives of the investor at the top of the chain.

The threat to clubs’ identity, purpose and raison d’etre is real. That can be easily glossed over if a club has the kind of unprecedented success Girona are enjoying right now, but it is impossible to ignore when a club is enduring the kind of misery that has engulfed Troyes.

The people at CFG are smart operators, some of the best in the game. They have spent years building their multi-club operation — and, in Soriano’s case, years before that planning it.

But even they are not infallible, as their experience with Troyes underlines, because running 13 clubs successfully looks like an impossible juggling act. There are other multi-club investors who have yet to demonstrate they have the competence to run one club, let alone an entire network.

In France, opposition is growing louder. In the past week, the National Association of Supporters has urged fans across the country to battle against the phenomenon, warning that the identity and soul of French and European football is under threat.

Nowhere in France is that threat being felt more intensely right now than in Troyes.

In a picture-book town, supporters wanted to embrace the fairytale: believing they were the Cinderella club who had the good fortune to be rescued by a handsome prince. The reality, as they face up to the threat of a second successive relegation, is proving very different.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton. Maps by John Bradford)

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