PARIS (AP) - Buy two French soccer players, get another two for free.
That isn’t quite how things panned out but it is almost how they looked when the English Premier League did its shopping this winter in France, carting away some of the 1998 World Cup winner’s top talents as though they were on special offer.
Newcastle United, with a squad now just one-part English, two parts rest of the world, has become so Francophile that it should consider renaming itself Chateau Neuf. The quaint, old ideal that soccer clubs should recruit locally or at least nationally to preserve their character and links to their surrounding communities is precisely that: quaint and old.
Priority No. 1 for clubs in the Premier League is staying there, not requiring that players actually know something about the team or its city before they join. Martians would be welcome if they could find a work permit and the back of the net. Do that and few care if they don’t speak a word of Geordie, the Newcastle dialect, or the queen’s English.
In England’s northernmost city, some fans now wear berets to St. James’ Park. The Strawberry pub opposite Newcastle’s stadium temporarily changed its name to “La Fraise.” The menu at the club’s training ground a few days back could have been lifted from a Paris bistro: onion soup, duck, scallops and a “selection de fromages.” “Trop bon!” the club tweeted. But the romance will sour and could backfire faster than Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal comment about eating cake on both players and club administrators should their French recruits fail to do the job expected of them: stopping the club from falling off the Premier League gravy train.
“If you give your all to the team and fight for the club, you’re quickly liked and adopted,” French midfielder Yohan Cabaye said this week, referring to Newcastle’s fans. “If things start to go badly, they’ll start screaming and throwing away their berets.”
Back in France, there’s no consensus on whether French soccer should be flattered that the likes of Newcastle come looking for bargains like English day-trippers shopping for cheap wine or be alarmed that so many French stars have fallen for English charms. Is this a gain or a drain for France? The answer is a bit of both.
“I think it’s a compliment, isn’t it?” said Simon Stainrod, who played on both sides of the English Channel as a professional. “It’s more like a happy marriage.”
Stainrod was involved in the transfers of some of Newcastle’s French players, including Hatem Ben Arfa in 2010. The attacking midfielder has since been joined there by 10 compatriots, including five in January as Newcastle manager Alan Pardew sought to arrest and reverse his team’s perilous slide down the league.
This is the same Pardew who as West Ham manager in 2006 criticized Arsenal for fielding so few English players. “To some extent, we could lose the soul of British football _ the English player,” the BBC quoted him as saying. At Newcastle, Pardew lacks only a French goalkeeper to be able to field a completely Gallic team. Idealism has succumbed to expediency.
Stainrod said Newcastle is an easy sell as a destination to French players. The heated atmosphere of St. James’ Park, where soccer has been played since 1880 close to the spot where the city used to have its gallows, holds particular appeal. Moussa Sissoko, who joined from Toulouse, said he’d never previously witnessed support like that showered on him by the sellout 50,000-strong Geordie crowd on Feb. 2, when he scored twice to down Chelsea 3-2.
“For real football passion _ which is what you really crave when you’re coming from France, because they kind of miss out on football passion a bit in France _ Newcastle for me is destination No. 1,” Stainrod said in an interview.
According to reports in French media, Newcastle got three France internationals _ midfielder Sissoko and defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa _ plus forward Yoan Gouffran and 20-year-old defender Massadio Haidara this January for a modest total of about $32 million. Liverpool paid not far off twice that for just one Englishman, Newcastle striker Andy Carroll, in 2011.
“Sissoko was a great grab,” Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said. “A couple of years ago he was being linked with the top clubs in the world and to get him at such a low price was a massive coup for them.”
French clubs need the revenue from player sales.
“Perhaps we should look on the bright side of things here and tell ourselves that it will give chances to youngsters, to other players, and perhaps clean up the finances of quite a few clubs,” said Lyon coach Remi Garde. “All French clubs have entered a period of austerity.”
France can also take pride that it has so many players to sell.
Stainrod, who lives in Cannes on the French Riviera, called France “the European Brazil for producing players,” with a conveyor belt of talent from youth training programs that “is second to none.”
Still, that France can’t keep more players is a sign of comparative weakness. Bigger television revenues give Premier League teams more financial clout than French ones. Montpellier earned $47 million in TV income in 2012 when it won France’s Ligue 1. That is half the size of the TV bonanza that went to Premier League champion Manchester City and considerably less, even, than the $63 million Wolverhampton Wanderers got in finishing last in England’s top league.
“They’re not buying our players to flatter us but because they’re good value,” said Jean-Louis Triaud, president of Bordeaux, which got $3.3 million from Newcastle for Gouffran.
“For me, it’s just a reality we can’t fight,” he said in a phone interview. French players’ “transfers and salaries cost less. They would be silly not to take advantage of that.”
Or, as they say in Newcastle, at least for now: Vive la France!
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester
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