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Soccer! Money makes the soccer world turn (except for you, France)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.

This has already proven to be a breakthrough season for the English Premier League, which has won half the spots in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in a decade and has two teams in the quarterfinals of the Europe League. Add it up and six of the EPL’s 20 teams have claimed berths in the final eight of the continent’s top two club tournaments.

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At the other end is France’s Ligue 1 which, for the third year in a row, saw no team advance past the round of 16 in the Champions League. Just one French team, Rennes, got that far in the Europa League.

And money, not talent, is the biggest reason for that disparity.

Of the 10 most valuable soccer teams in the world, according to an annual survey by financial services firm Deloitte, seven are in the quarterfinals of the two tournaments. All are worth at least $485 million.

None are from France.

Among the top 10 only Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, winner of the last three Champions League tournaments, failed to advance to the quarterfinals of either event, each losing in the last round.

So that’s the money part. Now here’s the talent part – and pay attention because they’re related:

That France produces the world’s best players is backed by both the fact the country is the reigning world champion and by the work of researcher Darko Dukic, who found that 52 players born there played in the last World Cup, representing not only France but Tunisia, Argentina, Senegal, Portugal and Morocco.

Since 2002, Dukic’s research shows, 216 French-born players have made World Cup rosters. Brazil is a distant second with 148.

So if France has the best players why don’t the country’s club teams do better? Money again is the answer since talent has value and French clubs can’t afford to pay for it. That’s why just two of the 14 French players who took the field in last summer’s World Cup roster played for Ligue 1 teams.

Officials in France are now hoping to use the World Cup success to raise the profile of the French league and create an environment – financial and otherwise – that would allow the country’s best players to stay home.

“We are not racing against the clock. We take all the good things and we build for it,” said Olivier Jaubert, the chief sales and marketing director for the league. “We are business-oriented. We are international-development focused.

“So it’s not ‘Oh, let’s capitalize and capture the success now because we have PSG and the World Cup.’ No. It’s to use this as a notification of all the great work we are doing.”

Ligue 1 lags well behind other top European teams in revenues. A recent Deloitte review of soccer finances showed the European market to be worth nearly $29 billion but it is divided unequally. The English Premier League took in record revenues of $6 billion in 2016-17, the last year surveyed, and none of the 20 EPL’s 20 teams lost money; nine of them are ranked among Deloitte’s 20 wealthiest clubs.

So it’s no wonder the average payroll of an EPL team was double the figure in Germany’s Bundesliga, the next-best-paying league. France, meanwhile, ranked last in Europe’s top five leagues in average revenue by club ($93 million) and average attendance (21,078) and was fourth, ahead of Italy’s Serie A, in stadium capacity (67%), Deloitte said.

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And those numbers have consequences. According to the UEFA coefficient, a 40-year-old statistical formula used to rank the relevant soccer strength of European countries, France ranks fifth behind Spain, England, Italy and Germany and just ahead of Russia and Portugal.

Broadcast rights are big reason for the disparity. The EPL’s new domestic TV deal, which begins next season, is worth $6.2 billion over three seasons. International rights have brought the EPL another $1.46 billion a season.

Ligue 1’s new domestic deal begins in 2020 and is worth $5.2 billion over four seasons, more than double the value of the current deal but still well behind what the EPL earns. And the league’s international deal with BeIN Sports, which runs through 2024, is worth just $80 million a season – about a fifth of what Italy’s Serie A gets and less than a third of what the Bundesliga earns.

I know, that’s a lot of math. But what it breaks down to is this: France poor, everyone else… not so much, which leaves French teams significantly outgunned going into each transfer window.

And just like in real life, the gap between the poorest and richest figures to continue growing since the eight clubs that reached the Champions League quarterfinals – each of them already well-heeled -- will each receive nearly $23 million in prize money for making it that mark, with a chance to make another $30 million by reaching the final. That’s on top of bonuses they received for advancing through the group stage, which is how Real Madrid pocketed more than $101 million for winning last year’s tournament.

No French or German teams remain in the running for that jackpot.

I met with Jaubert in an upper-floor conference room at the league’s hard-to-find warren of offices about a mile from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where he went over many of the points he and league president Didier Quillot have shared with U.S.-based investors they tried to lure to the league.

The pair, who made a half-dozen trips to the U.S. last year, are not only looking for financial help but are seeking the kind of marketing and sports expertise American owners bring. So far only three clubs have found American owners, the most prominent of whom is Frank McCourt, the former Dodger owner who bought the iconic club Olympique de Marseille for $51 million in 2016 and promptly reversed the team’s fortunes, taking it to the Europa League final last year.

(Contrast that sale price with the $382 million owner Mike Ashley was reportedly asking for EPL club Newcastle United, which is just seven points clear of the relegation zone.)

“This is the place to invest,” insisted Jaubert, agreeing the league had nowhere to go but up. “This is the biggest message to deliver right now. We are the league of talents. We have a very professional management structure at the league level. We have incredible possibilities in terms of player development. We have a new TV rights deal.

“So if you are somebody really looking at investing in football in Europe, [France] should be your first priority. There are still some opportunities. Not that many. So rush.”

Disdain by Spain is LAFC’s gain

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Barcelona’s interest in LAFC captain Carlos Vela this winter was real. And Vela’s interest in returning to Spain to play for Barca was real as well.

How close LAFC general manager John Thorrington came to letting that happen, however, is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that Barca eventually passed on Vela and settled on Sassuolo’s Kevin-Prince Boateng instead.

And Thorrington and everyone else around LAFC is undoubtedly glad Vela stayed because he is proving to be the best player in the league. Sunday he put on another tour de force, scoring both LAFC goals as the team rallied twice from deficits to remain unbeaten with a 2-2 road draw against New York City FC.

“I am trying to be the leader of this team, and in situations like that, on not good days and not good moments, I have to be there for my team,” said Vela, who was a finalist for MVP honors last season when he led the team with 14 goals and 13 assists, joining Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco as the only MLS player with at least 13 goals and assists.

“I am working hard to improve every day and I am trying to show every game that I am at a high level.”

A week earlier he had a goal, two assists and was crucial in setting up the game-winning score in a victory over Portland, earning league player of the week honors. After three weeks he’s tied for the MLS lead in goals with three and he’s done that despite being the second-most-fouled player in the league through the first three weeks.

“Carlos is such an important player,” coach Bob Bradley said. “And what I really like is, in certain situations now he is on the move more. Last year there were times, especially in the second half of the year, he would come back he wouldn’t play simple enough and he would end up just wrestling with defenders and wasting energy far away from the goal.

“He also makes better decisions when it is not the right time to try dribble, for me those are positives.”

Vela’s form – and his performance for Mexico in last summer’s World Cup – makes it difficult to understand why he wasn’t called up by the national team this week ahead of friendlies with Chile and Paraguay. Age – Vela turned 30 this month – can’t be the reason since new coach Tata Martino called up seven older players. Nor can Martino, who is in the process of rebuilding El Tri, use the excuse that he wanted to get a look at some new players since four call-ups have more international caps than Vela’s 71.

Based on Bradley’s evasive non-answer when asked last week about Vela’s status with the national team, combined with the player’s admission he had discussed his availability with Martino, my uneducated guess is Vela wanted to stay with LAFC which, unlike many MLS teams, will play a game during the international break.

As both the team’s captain and its best player, Vela may have decided a game that counts for LAFC is more important than two that don’t for Mexico.

“I’m trying to be the leader of the team every day,” Vela said earlier this month. “It’s why I came here. I’m working on it. Every day I try to be better, to be a better player and a better teammate.

“In the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league. If I want to do that then I have to show every game how good I am.”

Mexico’s sending us their best and brightest

With the Galaxy getting a two-week breaking during the international window, their captain, midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, will be joining Mexico for its upcoming games in San Diego on March 22 and Santa Clara on March 26.

Yet based on Saturday’s 3-2 win over Minnesota United, Dos Santos may not even be the best Mexican player on his own club team. With forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic missing a second straight game with an Achilles strain – so we’re told, although the team won’t commit to which leg is injured – midfielder Uriel Antuna was pushed into the vacant spot up top and he created headaches for MUFC all night.

His performance didn’t look like much on the scoresheet: one assist (albeit on Sebastian Lletget’s game-winning goal), no shots and just 47 touches, lowest among starters. But his speed and tireless work rate created havoc, opening wide swaths of real estate for his teammates.

“He was a machine for us,” said Chris Pontius, who scored the second Galaxy goal. “Just a guy that’s shown up in spots that we need him to. He was unbelievable.”

Antuna, 21, said the change in positions wasn’t difficult but he appreciated coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto having enough trust in him to make the switch.

“I know the position. In the beginning of my career I played as a forward so I am familiar with it,” Antuna said in Spanish. “That gives you a lot of confidence, knowing the coach is giving you the opportunities and the confidence to put you on the field.”

Antuna, by the way, has never played for Mexico’s senior national team. Maybe Dos Santos could put in a good word this week.

A women’s place is on the field

Don’t be surprised if this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France proves to be a major success, both on the field and at the box office.

The on-field part is obvious. The quality of the women’s game has grown markedly in recent years. The U.S. is still the world’s top-ranked team and is favored to successfully defend the title it won four years ago, but the field of contenders chasing it has never been deeper.

Gone are the days when the U.S. could simply roll the ball out and collect the trophy.

France beat the U.S. earlier this year and the Americans could only manage draws with England and Japan in this month’s SheBelieves Cup, where they finished second to England. Unbeaten last year, the U.S. has won two of five matches this year.

And the rest of the world keeps coming. Denmark, second in the most recent European Championships, didn’t even qualify for the World Cup while the Netherlands, which won that tournament, trails six teams in the latest FIFA rankings. No fewer than 10 countries – the U.S, Australia, Japan, Canada, England, Brazil, France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands – will enter this summer’s tournament with reason to think they could win it.

At the box office the game has made even bigger gains. A sellout crowd of 60,739 – largest ever for a women’s club match – packed Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Sunday to see the hosts lose 2-0 to Barcelona. That crowd breaks the previous attendance record set in January when 48,121 watched a Spanish Copa de la Reina game between Atletico Madrid and Atletic Bilbao at Bilbao

“So that’s how it feels to score against your rivals, in front of 60,000 people!” English national team star Toni Duggan, who scored Barcelona’s second goal, wrote on Twitter. You can watch highlights from that game here.

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To boost attendance, tickets for Sunday’s match, played on the outskirts of Madrid, were free to club members and reduced to $5.60 for the general public. The game sold out days in advance with a spokesperson telling ESPN more than 40% of the tickets were paid for.

“In the last three years things have changed massively,” Barcelona captain Victoria Losada said during a February interview at the team’s training facility not far from the city’s airport. “Each day is a big new step for us. Now people in Spain look at football, women’s football, without another perspective.

“People now respect this sport and it has changed a lot.”

And Spain isn’t the only place where fans have started paying attention to women’s soccer. Last year 45,423 attended the FA Women’s Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium. And in Mexico, where activists fought for years just to establish a viable women’s league, five crowds of more than 30,000 fans showed up in 2018 for games involving Tigres, topped by a record 51,211 for Tigres’ victory in May’s Liga MX final in Monterrey.

All that bodes well for this summer’s tournament in France. Last month organizers said they were already more than halfway to their goal of 1 million tickets sold for the 52-game competition, with a nearly quarter of tickets purchased in the U.S. And the newspaper L'Equipe reported that in Lyon, where the two semifinals and final will be played, 147,585 of the 173,700 available tickets were sold 100 days before the tournament opener.

Those numbers have undoubtedly gone up since then.

“We want to have full stadiums,” Laura Georges, the second-most-capped player in French history and now general secretary of the country’s soccer federation, told me when I visited her last month in Paris. “We want to grow the attention on women’s football. We want to be the leaders.

“To inspire all this, to build it for our girls.”

The record attendance for a Women’s World Cup is 1.353 million, set four years in Canada when the crowds for group-play doubleheaders were counted twice. The record for average attendance was set in 1999, when the U.S. hosted and just 32 games were played -- 20 fewer than in Canada. That tournament drew 1.19 million fans for an average of 37,319 per game.

Here are the top 10 women’s club soccer crowds, according to Soccer America.

Attendance Country. Match (Competition, Year)

60,739 Spain. Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona (Liga Femenina, 2019)

51,211 Mexico. Monterrey vs. Tigres (Liga MX Femenil, 2018)

50,212 Germany. Lyon vs. FFC Frankfurt (UEFA WCL, 2012)

48,121 Spain. Athletic Bilbao vs. Atletico Madrid (Copa de la Reina, 2019)

45,423 England. Chelsea vs. Arsenal (FA Women's Cup, 2018)

41,121 Mexico. Tigres vs. Club America (Liga MX Femenil, 2018)

38,230 Mexico. Tigres vs. Monterrey (Liga MX Femenil, 2019)

37,601 Mexico. Tigres vs. Monterrey (Liga MX Femenil, 2018)

35,271 England. Man. City vs. Birmingham City (FA Women's Cup, 2017)

35,000 Spain. Athletic Bilbao vs. Hispalis (Liga Femenina, 2003)

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Until next time

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