The state of French football is somewhat bleak. Luis Campos, one of the sport’s greatest talent-spotters, wants Lille to cancel his contract. Andoni Zubizarreta has quit his role of director of football at Marseille due to tensions with the club’s president, Jacques-Henri Eyraud, who has reportedly tried to turn influential players against him so the club can sell them more easily this summer to assuage pressure from Uefa over their Financial Fair Play violations.
Ligue 1 is the only of Europe’s big five leagues to have terminated the season early due to the coronavirus pandemic, a decision that has triggered three legal cases against French football’s professional body, the LFP – including one from Amiens, who were relegated despite sitting just four points from safety with 10 matches to play.
Amid the chaos, Bob Ratcliffe – who runs OGC Nice as part of his role as head of football at INEOS, the chemicals company that owns the French club and FC Lausanne in the Swiss second division – remains unfazed about the end of the season: “It is what it is,” he said on a 90-minute interview with our podcast. Cynics might suggest the early stoppage benefits Nice, whose fifth-place finish should earn them a place in the Europa League next season.
That is not certain though. If the two cup finals go ahead – something the FFF are determined to do – and PSG lose them both, Nice would miss out on European football next season. So, the club are facing a summer transfer window without knowing whether or not they will be playing Thursday night football next season.
Ratcliffe is more exercised about the uncertainty facing Lausanne, where he is president and has a more day-to-day role. The club are 15 points clear at the top of the Swiss second division, yet they may miss out on promotion if the season is voided. “To have a level of certainty early is actually quite helpful,” he says. “I have been more concerned and more vocal about what is happening in Switzerland, where we have a situation where the season could be voided.
He is critical of how football associations have handled the crisis. “It is beholden to sports administrators to think not what is the situation today, but what is the situation will be as we emerge from this. It is the same in the UK as well. Sports administrators quite often have very good titles – they are chief executives or presidents – but they don’t behave like chief executives of companies in terms of guiding the way forward and being advocates. They tend to be more secretariat and that is what football suffers from to some extent.”
Despite this reservation, Ratcliffe says INEOS are keen to extend their football operation by acquiring a third European club in the near future, particularly somewhere that could act as a feeder club for Nice. “It is something that we will look at, potentially another club that could provide that pathway. Because that is quite important to us. I thought it was quite interesting that Manchester City have just bought that second division Belgian club. It would be a development pathway, so we can bring players through to Nice. As far as we are concerned, Nice is at the top of the pyramid.”
Ratcliffe says players within the INEOS umbrella will be developed to play a similar, attractive style of football. “That is quite important. In the Premier League I would still rather watch Manchester City than Liverpool and I don’t say that because I come from Manchester. You come back to the characteristics of an INEOS player – people who can work hard for the team, track back, those sorts of characteristics. It is important to put on attractive football, where you see something special. We have a nucleus of a core of players, which hopefully we can add to, who can put that on display for the fans and the league more broadly.”
Ratcliffe, who displays a balance of passion and seriousness that has become a rare commodity in French football boardrooms over the last decade, says his first nine months at Nice have principally been about managing expectations and counteracting his brother’s “Britain’s biggest billionaire” tag. “People think you are going to achieve it through chequebook and that is not what we want to be known for. We want to be known for people who are very thoughtful with what they acquire. And you see that with Julien [Fournier, the sporting director at Nice]. He lines up a number of players and that is important to us.
“I spent my life in financial services looking at acquisitions. INEOS does a lot of acquisitions. The talent is in many ways the preparedness to walk away from a deal if you want to secure value. That’s quite important to us. We will invest in Nice, but through Financial Fair Play, you are necessarily limited to what you can invest, so you have to make the absolute best of that investment. So we will carefully do acquisitions, but alongside that, we need the best academy, the best scouting, pathways, other pieces that we have either a partnership or an ownership in. And it is all those things knotted together that will hopefully bring us consistent European football.”
Ratcliffe is not intent on challenging PSG immediately. “The resources of PSG are significant. It does everything well. From its kit, its Michael Jordan tie-in. It should be able to attract very interesting players going forward. I was asked what do we do better in Nice and the only thing I can come up with at the moment is the weather. But that in itself is quite interesting. Because, within INEOS, we talk to ourselves and say: why wouldn’t you want to go to Nice as a young player? You have a great coach, great stadium and what a place to live. There is a big plus about warm weather football.
“Part of building this hub of INEOS football around Nice is that it is a great place to be and a fantastic place to play your football. I don’t know how much it matters to a young footballer. I hope it does. Hey, you can bump into Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas in the gym. There is this mix with other athletes that could be quite interesting, even housing some of the young players together from the diverse sports. There is a lot we have not even started on yet in terms of INEOS Sport.”
In a period of in-fighting and intense battling for self-interests, Ratcliffe says clubs and authorities have to come together to help French football reach a bigger international audience: “We want to compete with the top teams in Ligue 1 but, at the same time, we want to work with them to bring a better product to the fore. There is a lot that is not being done. We need more thought about what French football is about.
“With the start of the Bundesliga, everyone is talking about Jadon Sancho, [Ethan] Ampadu, various Premier League players who are playing in the Bundesliga. We have tried to do that. I spent some time between Christmas and New Year with a player and his father, because we were trying to get a young player from the Premier League. That would add to the league as well, to give it some profile, get players from other leagues coming through. If you look at Sancho versus Phil Foden, to my mind there is only one individual to have made the right decision there. There is no one way to improve the profile, but I do think we need to work on these stories.”