They certainly feel a bit isolated. After French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called for the premature end of the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus outbreak and league honours were handed out, Ligue 1 players all over France (or overseas for those who left the country to spend lockdown somewhere else) are stuck. They’re watching their counterparts all over Europe playing football again, league after league. Day after day and goal after goal, they see their friends (and even some old teammates) doing their jobs again and enjoying themselves on the pitch. Yet, they are not. Most are still stuck at home, with few teams training yet to get ready for next season, which will start on Aug. 23.
“I don’t know if we can use the word ‘depression,’ but there is a huge absence for sure,” Angers defender Romain Thomas told ESPN. “Stopping the season was not my idea, because it made a lot of people unhappy. I have friends [on other teams] who are going down to the second division without having been able to fight to stay up.”
“There were still 30 points at stake. Even for us at Angers, I thought we could have finished higher. [Editor’s Note: Angers finished 10th in Ligue 1, but were two points only from fifth when the league was cancelled.] I miss playing, especially when I watch the other leagues. It is hard. Our last game was on March 7. It feels like so long ago. When you see the other countries, you realise that there is a moment when it is time to play again. I am hungry, I am programmed for it.”
Most Ligue 1 players have been spending their downtime closely following the title race in Spain, enjoying Bayern Munich’s dominance in Germany or keeping an eye on the chase for the Scudetto between Juventus and Lazio in the Italian Serie A. And yet, that’s not enough.
“All we can do is watch on television. There is clearly a lot of frustration now that we are the only one of the five big leagues not to play again,” a player from a team that finished in the top six told ESPN. “At the beginning, we respected the fact that the French government decided it was not safe to resume playing, but that it was too early to make a final decision. We should have waited and reassessed the situation a bit later. Now it looks stupid that we are the only ones not playing.”
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The frustration is palpable and for some of the league’s most experienced players, they feel the blame lays on those in charge.
“If you have followed all the events closely, you would have seen Javier Tebas [Spanish La Liga president] being on top of everything, putting his league first with the Spanish government and UEFA. For us, we had no leadership. The government took the decision in the end and there was nothing we could do. Except, it was the wrong call,” continues the top-six player. You can sense some anger and a bit of jealousy in his voice too.
The collective sense of frustration is probably even greater now that some clubs have resumed training regulations across the country have eased.
At the end of May, the former French sports minister, Patrick Kanner, felt the nation had been too quick to cancel the season. Then, on June 20, it was announced that sporting events in front of up to 5,000 people would be allowed as of July 11, and that “a further review of the national epidemiological situation will be carried out in mid-July to decide whether a loosening is possible for the second half of August.” As a result, the French Federation is almost certain to have some fans at the Stade de France for the French Cup final on July 25. The League Cup final should also have supporters in the ground on Aug. 1.
One team that is back at training is Lille and their captain, Jose Fonte. The Portugal defender spent the coronavirus lockdown at his house in London with his wife and two children, Luna and Luca. He is back in Northern France, spending the past week reconnecting with his teammates at Lille’s Luchin training ground, enduring all kinds of medical tests.
“Of course, there is a void,” he tells ESPN. “We miss it. It is normal, because what is the hardest is that during the season, we are always all together. We are all part of a unit. At the moment, we’ve been keeping in touch and we have a strong bond. We took a different route [back to action], but watching the other leagues makes you want to be back playing even more.”
Yet not every professional player in France is as desperate to return to the pitch, simply not big fans of playing football again in such difficult conditions. Cesc Fabregas, who is back in training with Monaco, is one of them.
“I feel like I’m watching a training session. You can hear all the players and the coaches shouting. Now, we will value the power of the fans even more. Captains are choosing pitch sides, with 3 meters distance [between them], when straight away they have to fight for every ball against each other, face to face. I am glad football is back. We all needed it but it will take ages to get used to this new world of football,” he wrote on Twitter after the Bundesliga restarted in mid-May.
Former Arsenal star Laurent Koscielny took the decision to finish the Ligue 1 season on board and wasted little time in moving on. The Bordeaux defender tells ESPN he has never been a big fan of watching other leagues and games anyway. The decision to shut Ligue 1 down led Koscielny to take a total break from football and begin switching his focus to the 2020-21 season.
“A decision was taken and we have to respect it,” he tells ESPN. “Even if we all wanted to go back playing, health was the most important. Whether the other leagues started or not doesn’t matter. Now we need to be ready for August when the new season will start. That’s all we can do.”
Eventually, the ones who are perhaps most envious of other leagues successfully resuming their 2019-20 seasons are the owners and chairmen of Ligue 1 clubs. The pandemic and the loss of earnings due to the premature end of the season has hurt. Lyon president, Jean-Michel Aulas, has been the most vocal and claims that the league will lose €1 billion (though it’s more likely to be around €300m). He tried everything to fight off the decision to suspend play and get the ruling overturned. He wrote letters to the French government, the league and the nation’s minister of sport, spending hours on the phone to try and convince decision-makers of the need for a U-turn. It was all in vain.
In the end, Aulas wanted Ligue 1 back so badly that he’s not watched any games from another league yet. It’s probably still too raw.