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Football’s man for all seasons

If you were to draw up a job advertisement for a football federation president, there would be a number of factors to consider.

You would probably look for someone who understands the centrality of club football, but is not beholden to it. You would try to attract an individual who knows that football is big business – a part of the entertainment industry – but whose values are rooted in the social role of sport. You would aim to recruit a person with the savvy to negotiate the cut and thrust of politics, who listens to others but is decisive when the chips are down.

You would be describing someone like Noël Le Graët, president of the French football federation, the Fédération Française de Football.

The CV of the 74-year-old Breton ticks all of those boxes: 30 years as president of a French league club, Guingamp; nearly 10 years as president of the league, the Ligue de Football Professionnel; 30 years at the helm of the Le Graët family food business; and 13 as the Socialist mayor of Guingamp, a small town in northern Brittany.

Le Graët already has the job, of course. He was elected president of the French federation in June 2011. He fi nds himself leading the country’s football movement in a year when all eyes are on France as it prepares to host Euro 2016. Unfortunately, the attention of the world will not just be on the football. The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 have made it inevitable that the competition will be about so much more than who is the best national team in Europe.

Still standing

It was Le Graët who decided that France’s friendly against England at Wembley should go ahead, just four days after ISIS bombers blew themselves up in a botched attempt to cause mass fatalities among the 79,000 people watching the friendly against Germany in the Stade de France.

France is, and will remain, a welcoming country for visitors

“During the attacks we decided to continue playing the match [against Germany] and we took the necessary measures, I believe, to ensure it was safe for the public,” he told SportBusiness International. “It was a great relief. After that I quickly decided that we had to play the game at Wembley. We had to show that France was still standing. It was important to do so and I think we did well.

“The English are used to organising big matches. I had no doubts. I conveyed that to my staff, who got in contact with the English federation the morning after the attacks, then with the Ministry of the Interior and [the offi ce of the French president] the Élysée Palace.”

None of those who were present at Wembley, or who watched the game at home, will ever forget the evening, which fully vindicated Le Graët’s decision, not simply because it passed without incident. Not surprisingly, it had a profound impact on him.

“We were received magnifi cently in England and at Wembley. The welcome [for the French team and its supporters] had a huge impact in France. To hear La Marseillaise sung by another major European country, with the red, white, blue everywhere – it was a great moment for France, which was under attack. I felt immense pride. It was hugely emotional to be received with such class, such solidarity and generosity – I could never have imagined it. When I saw everything that the English had put in place for the occasion, I found it incredible.”

Those attacks, and many others around the world in the last few years, have made living with the fear of terrorism the new normal. Le Graët points out that France was already on high alert before November 13, but is keen to stress that one of the republic’s founding principles – fraternité – is not up for discussion as a consequence.

“You know, before these attacks, security was already a priority issue, quite rightly. The federation and the Euro 2016 company led by Jacques Lambert are in constant and continuous contact with the State, the authorities. Everything is done so that the Euro takes place in the best possible conditions. France is, and will remain, a welcoming country for visitors,” he said.

Multicultural society

With the multi-ethnic fabric of French society being picked apart both by those who deal in terror and those who feed on the fear of it, the night of July 12, 1998 now seems like a dream. That night French captain Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup in Paris and hundreds of thousands of Parisians descended on the Champs-Élysées. A squad whose origins were in Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Ghana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Senegal were hailed as the perfect symbol of multicultural France. The black-blanc-beur (black-white-Arab) team went on to win the European Championship two years later. Football, all too briefl y it would turn out, had united the nation.

Le Graët does not want to overload the outcome this summer with socio-political signifi cance, but does allude to the deeper potential of emulating that success. “A win is always well received and experienced by the entire population,” he added. “A France that wins such an important competition helps to bring people together, especially in difficult times like today.”

Even successfully hosting such a major event, he said, will send out a strong message about the country and its capabilities. “It isn’t just about winning. Organising the Euros is also a project for the future. This is not only a month of competition. France will show that it is capable of organising major competitions, with its hospitality infrastructure, transport system, services and its skills. France has invested in this.”

Clawing back ground

Hosting a month-long celebration of football will administer an adrenalin shot to the sport at all levels in France, including the elite clubs of Ligue 1. On most counts, the league is behind its counterparts in England, Italy, Spain and Germany. But the gap will be closed, Le Graët believes, through some of the benefi ts of Euro 2016, like the state-of-the art stadiums that will be in place around the country.

“If we hadn’t got the tournament, I think it would have been impossible to catch up,” he admitted frankly. “France was lagging behind in terms of hospitality in the stadiums and in maximising its economic potential. But this will no longer be the case. In terms of capacity and quality, France will have a level of stadium that it has never had before.

“Our clubs are at the start of a new cycle. They are being reorganised and are preparing well for the future. Lyon is one of the best examples, with a great chairman [businessman Jean-Michel Aulas). It has a brand new 60,000- seat stadium which is owned by the club. This is a country made up of big cities with people who are passionate about football.”

Ambitious, far-sighted owners will help the league progress, he added. But contemporary ‘soccernomics’ demonstrate that success is linked to financial resources and, at the moment, French clubs are not on a level playing field financially.

The Qatar connection

One of the most positive developments for French club football in recent years has been the massive injection of cash from Qatar. The emirate’s beIN Media Group has pumped hundreds of millions of euros into the league’s coffers through the acquisition of its domestic and international television rights. For the 2012-13 domestic rights cycle the broadcaster paid €150m per season. For the league’s international rights it fi rst agreed a six-year deal, from 2012-13 to 2017-18, worth €32.5m, and then extended that to 2023-24 in a deal worth €80m per season. In the most recent domestic tender covering the four seasons from 2016-17 to 2019-20, the broadcaster upped its spending by nearly a quarter to €186.5m per season.

The benefit for each league club, however, is overshadowed by the Qatar Sports Investments fund’s acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain in 2012 and the subsequent building of the club into a European powerhouse. As in Germany, with Bundesliga club Bayern Munich, France now has a team that can compete with the best in Europe, but which is so strong that it makes the outcome of the domestic league season a foregone conclusion.

Le Graët is fully aware of the risks of losing competitive balance at home. When other clubs fi nd they are losing young fans to a glamorous rival, it can be “a bit dangerous.” But he argues that French football needs at least one giant on the world stage.

“In Ligue 1, PSG crushes the competition. At the moment it is a case of PSG and then all the other clubs. From the perspective of quality, PSG is huge; its budget is three times higher than the next club. So the other clubs are struggling to fi nd their level. But we need a PSG today, given that other European clubs are doing the same thing. Otherwise, we would not be able to compete against the English, the top three Spanish clubs and the Germans with Bayern Munich. Neither the federation nor the league has problems with PSG.”

He pointed out that Bayern has achieved its pre-eminence in Germany without a foreign sugar-daddy, something that should provide some kind of hope to French clubs. “Bayern has managed to build a local economic model. It has managed to generate as much money as the big English clubs but with organic revenues. Lyon can copy this model, but it will take years.”

Le Graët does not object to foreign investment per se, but is instinctively uncomfortable with the clubs being entirely owned by non-French companies. “Europe is open, and our clubs are not closed to such investment. Personally, I prefer the German system, which is rooted in local business, rather than having foreign investors owning 100 per cent of the club. This is my philosophy. I would rather see foreign investors having a large minority stake in clubs and bringing in other French companies. But at the moment the politicians don’t want this.”

Platini ‘feels football’

If an element of patriotism is implicit in Le Graët’s yearning to keep clubs largely in French hands, it becomes explicit when the subject of Michel Platini is raised. Our interview takes place in the week that the Uefa president withdrew from the race to become Fifa’s new president. Platini said that he needed to concentrate on defending himself against the accusations of dereliction of duty and conflict of interests made by Fifa’s ethics committee when banning him from all football activities for eight years on December 21.

“This sanction is over the top,” Le Graët said. “I am French; of course I love Michel. But you know he is really an honest man. However, he is a number 10 and as a creative player, and as a man, maybe sometimes he has forgotten that you must also be surrounded by defensive midfielders to protect yourself.”

When listing the former national team captain’s achievements at Uefa, Le Graët cites Platini’s ability to represent the interests of large and small federations, large and small clubs, heading off the threat of a breakaway super league, and increasing revenues for clubs in the Champions League and the Europa League. “Michel feels football,” Le Graët added. “He will be difficult to replace.”

Despite his evident anger at the treatment of his compatriot, however, Le Graët refused to indulge in Fifa-bashing. He argued that Fifa is still “a successful organisation” which is needed by small and medium federations, and called the World Cup “sublime.” He suggested that maybe too much focus had been on the inhabitants of Fifa House in Zurich and not enough on the heads of some of its member federations.

“Fifa has been going through a bad period and this is quite logical, with all the scandals. Maybe it needs to restore its image. But Fifa is perhaps not necessarily the origin of everything. There are 205 countries represented within Fifa. Many of them have had economic difficulties.

“Has there been complicity, money going where it is not supposed to go? I really don’t know. But this leakage of funds is not necessarily due to the head office [Fifa]. It is difficult to apply European law around the world in a sport where there’s so much money.”

Good shape

Money. A successful businessman like Le Graët is unlikely to be found calling it the root of all evil. But he does feel that there are types of success in football which cannot simply be bought and which France must work hard to sustain.

“Money is important, but is not the only factor. There are also things like the development of players,” he said. “France has long been a leader in this, partly due to its proximity to Africa. Our dual citizens have been extremely positive for our football. We have our own players, but we are also a country which welcomes others. Our clubs must be even more vigilant in terms of their relations with African countries by being even more welcoming and developing their young players even better. The federation is working on development and performance, but also the education of young people. This social, educational aspect of football is essential.”

If we hadn’t got the tournament I think it would have been impossible for us to catch up

The country has a strong record in youth development, built on its technical centre at Clairefontaine, and with two million registered players, including 100,000 girls and women, its grassroots are fertile. This does not translate into Champions League-winning clubs in Ligue 1, because much of the best young talent is snapped up by clubs in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. At national team level, however, Le Graët feels that France is “in pretty good shape.”

At the time of writing, the women’s national team is third in the Fifa rankings behind the USA and Germany. The men’s team is slowly working its way back from the nadir of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, when the team fi nished bottom of its group and senior squad members revolted against coach Raymond Domenech. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the team lost narrowly in the quarter-finals to eventual winner Germany. As the host nation this summer, France will be among the favourites.

Should Didier Deschamps follow in the footsteps of Brazil’s Mário Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, and become the third person to win the World Cup as both player and coach, France may well experience an emotional catharsis that overshadows even 1998.

As head of the federation, Le Graët would be entitled to his share of the glory. But the sensation here is that the man who considers his greatest achievement as president to be “putting the right people in the right places” at the federation will be quick to deflect the attention onto others and to stress the deeper value to France of successfully hosting such an event.

“It would be nice. When you organise an event, you want to win it, that’s only logical. But the country also wants to behave in the right way in what is a complicated political moment, because of its roots and its history.”

 

Le Graët was born on Christmas Day in 1941 in Bourbriac, a commune in Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany.

He has held the role of president of football’s governing body in France since 2011. Away from football, Le Graët is a successful businessman.

In 1986 he founded Groupe Le Graët, a food producer that has expanded into multiple areas, and from 1995 to 2008 he served as the Mayor of Guingamp.

Before being appointed to the top job in French football, Le Graët held a number of positions in the sport. He served as president of his local club, EA Guingamp, for two spells, from 1972 to 1991 and from 2002 to 2011. He also worked as the president of the French professional league from 1991 to 2000.

Le Graët became vice-president of the French Football Federation in 2005 before being elected as the 12th president in the history of the governing body six years later.

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