A complete guide to the game across the country
Previously regarded as the fifth of the five big leagues, France is now more of a major force thanks to unprecedented investment in two previously underachieving clubs, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.
Factor in the major modernisations, rebuilds and new builds for Euro 2016, and the game in France can no longer be considered second-fiddle.
Even storied clubs St-Étienne and Stade de Reims, both steeped in European football lore, made recent appearances on the international stage, although les Verts have since hit a very big iceberg. The violent pitch invasion at the once revered Geoffroy-Guichard after St-Étienne lost a penalty shoot-out to Auxerre in a vital play-off not only condemned the hosts to seek promotion from Ligue 2 in 2022-23 with points deductions but also doubled down on a shocking trend in the French game.
Similar scenes at previous title-winners Nice, Lyon and Montpellier hint at an ironic dichotomy in Ligue 1. While PSG have raised the profile of French clubs in Europe, reaching the Champions League final in 2021, their domination at home leaves fans of the also-rans frustrated. It is no longer a level playing field.
All cities in the top tier are essentially one-club affairs, flagships whose local rivalries are regional, grudges harking back to Carolingian times.
This means, in turn, that a groundhop involves a trek – unlike across the border in Spain or Italy, there are no cross-city derbies or staggered fixtures over a weekend. The last Parisian club to share top-flight status with PSG was Racing back in 1990.
The solitary French winners of Europe’s premier trophy, Marseille, have the kind of mass fan culture seen in Naples and ultra followings in Lyon and Nice are no less demonstrative. While followers of AC and Inter can direct their ire at each other in Milan’s San Siro, those involved in the Derby du Nord, say, between Lens and Lille, can can cause chaos well away from their stadiums.
Which is not to say that parochial antagonism is all bad. Football in Brittany – a proudly Celtic region with its own language, bagpipes and cola soda drink – has been enjoying a spell in the top-flight spotlight. Brest, Rennes and Lorient also consider Nantes as regional rivals. Recently relegated Guingamp are still buoyant in Ligue 2.
Due south, rugby still holds sway in a swathe stretching between the football hubs of Bordeaux and Montpellier. The oval-ball code attracts higher gates in Toulouse, where Le Stadium is occasionally shared between TFC and 2022 European champions Stade Toulousain.
In the country’s second city of Lyon, however, rugby takes a back seat, or rather an old stadium, the Gerland, whereas Olympique Lyonnais, seven-time consecutive Ligue 1 winners in the early 2000s, bask in the mainly self-owned Groupama Arena, all 59,000 seats of it.
The French national team, world champions in 2018, play prime fixtures at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France, built to host the same tournament 20 years before. Also stage for the finals of the two main cup competitions, this showcase arena once hovered head and shoulders above the identikit stadia built in city outskirts all over Europe.
Its reputation was severely tarnished in May 2022, however, when heavy-handed security prevented Liverpool fans from entering the stadium for the Champions League final. The marquee fixture in the European football calendar had been claimed by France after original hosts St Petersburg had been ruled out. With the final held up for nearly 40 minutes and Liverpool fans violently attacked in the Parisian suburbs after the match, it may be some time before France holds a major final again. After the 2024 Olympics, that is.
STATION TO STADIUM
Arriving and getting around by public transport
The main budget airlines fly to and around France, most notably easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair. Hungarian budget Wizz Air also serves France from various destinations including Luton. National carrier Air France also offers economy fares for certain inland flights, after taking over its own low-cost subsidiary, HOP!
Changing trains in Paris is otherwise easy by métro, for the main stations of Gares de Lyon (for the Mediterranean), d’Austerlitz (the south-west), de l’Est (the east), Montparnasse (the west) and St-Lazare (Normandy and the west). From Gare du Nord, trains head north and north-west.
Find train information and discounts for advance tickets at SNCF (sncf.com/en), with bookings via SNCF Connect. Paper tickets issued at station offices must be validated in puncher machines near/on platforms.
Cross-country coaches are a recent introduction – the main one, BlaBlaBus, offers online booking and e-tickets, ID required upon boarding.
Motorways, autoroutes, have tollgates, péages – take a ticket as you enter, pay with cash (change given) or card as you leave. No vignette is required. Calculate your route/cost at Autoroutes. N roads are free if slower.
Nearly all French cities have an efficient transport network, invariably a swish tramway.
TABLES & TROPHIES
The league system, promotion, relegation and cups
The season 2022-23 is the last of the 20-team Ligue 1 before it switches back to a 18-club format after 20 years. Four clubs will be relegated to Ligue 2 and only two go up. The second tier also follows suit.
The top two in Ligue 1 qualify for the Champions League group stage, the third for the third qualifying round. The fourth-placed finishers go into the group stage of the Europa League, the fifth-placed, the Conference League play-off round.
Usually, the Ligue 1 side one above the relegation zone and the teams finishing third fourth and fifth in Ligue 2 play off for the one remaining slot in Ligue 1 the following season. First, fifth play fourth, the winners facing the third-placed team. Those winners then take on the club playing to stay in Ligue 1, over two legs.
In 2022, the occasion could not have been more dramatic, a penalty shoot-out between Auxerre and Saint-Étienne ending in victory for the Ligue 2 challengers and a violent pitch invasion by fans of the former record French champions.
In previous seasons, the bottom two of Ligue 2 swap directly with the top two of the next level down, the semi-professional, third-flight, 18-team Championnat National. For 2022-23, four go down. In this special interim season, only two go up from the third tier and six go down.
Similarly, the fourth tier, the Championnat National 2, is being adapted for the following season. Currently comprising four regional divisions (A-D) of 16 teams each, it will only promote the four winners to the level above, and will lose at least the bottom five clubs across the board. These will be joined by the two worst-performing sides in 11th place, based on results with mid-table opponents. Reserve sides cannot be promoted but can be relegated.
Most clubs at this level are amateur, with a few operating as semi-pro. The aim is to have three groups instead of four by 2025-26. In the interim, for 2023-24, the National 2 will have four groups of 14 teams and not 16.
Currently comprising 12 regional groups of 14 teams, the National 3 will also be gradually reduced before 2025-26, to divisions of 11, then ten, then eight. This will make promotion and relegation arrangements extremely complex over the next three seasons.
The sixth tier divides into 13 regions. Each has divisions at Régional 1 and 2 level, nearly all have a Régional 3, Corsica even has a Régional 4. Below sit the Departmental districts – Lyon and surroundings have the regular five local leagues, Alsace has nine (!), meaning the 17th rung nationally.
The French Cup, la Coupe de France, is as venerable as it is prestigious. It is also unusual as it involves clubs from overseas territories such as Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
Ties are decided on the day, by extra-time and penalties if need be.
Of the 14 rounds, the first seven are structured by region. Once professional clubs enter, those drawn against opposition two levels below must play the tie away – in 2018, third-tier Les Herbiers VF made the final, which takes place at the Stade de France in early May. The cup winners go through to the Europa League group stage. They also play the league winners in the Trophée des Champions, a super cup staged at a strange array of Francophone and random destinations from Klagenfurt to New Jersey and, most recently, Tel Aviv.
The League Cup, Coupe de la Ligue, was for professional clubs in the top three leagues. The last was played in 2020, the decision to axe the tournament taken before the pandemic. Covid restrictions then limited the crowd at that year’s final to 3,500 at the Stade de France.
The season from kick-off to crunch time
The Ligue 1 season starts early-to-mid August and finishes in mid May. Ligue 2 starts a week earlier. Both have a winter break, for around three weeks, just before Christmas into the second week of January.
Because of the World Cup taking place in mid-season in 2022, Ligues 1 and 2 will be suspended from mid-November until just after Christmas, then run until early June.
The classic slot for Ligue 1 is 8pm on Saturday. You can also expect a game at 8.30pm on Friday, 5pm on Saturday and two or three on Sunday, generally 2pm, 5pm and 9pm. Timings are set around a month ahead.
The main slot for Ligue 2 is 8pm on Friday. Games are usually scheduled for 2pm on Saturday and 8.30pm Monday.
Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much
Most clubs have online sales – look for the billetterie option on websites. Tickets are also often distributed in club shops and the guichet windows at the stadium in the run-up to the match and before kick-off.
With average Ligue 1 gates just above 20,000, few games sell out. The exceptions are Marseille, Paris St-Germain and the visits of either around the country.
Ticket agencies such as France Billet, Fnac, Ticketmaster, and hypermarket chains Carrefour and Auchan, also distribute. Not all websites are English-friendly and some only accept payment by cards issued from French banks.
The cheapest places are behind the goal, the virages. The main stand is the tribune principale, the best seats in the tribune d’honneur or présidentielle. The lower tier is inférieur, upper supérieur.
Tickets are reasonably affordable, usually around €12-€15 behind the goal, a decent seat along the sideline (tribune latérale) around €25-€30.