Ligue 1 Talk Exclusive Interview: Matt Spiro

Matt Spiro: One of the "Voices of Ligue 1".

For those of you who watch Ligue 1 in English on a regular basis, as well as visit the English version of Ligue1.com, the name Matthew Spiro is not uncommon. For years now, he has brought both the Internet and television audiences his intellect and insight into the world of Ligue 1. For most English speaking football fans, Ligue 1 is still quite foreign. But Mr. Spiro has been able to bridge the gap between between the World’s most exciting league and the English-speaking football community.

In our first interview of the year (and we hope to have many more in the coming months), Mr. Spiro answered some questions from Ligue 1 Talk. We discussed everything from how he got involved with French football, to the current season to the financial situations that are currently plaguing French football.

In addition, Ligue 1 Talk would like to congratulate Mr. Spiro on becoming a father of a baby girl. Of course, she was nice enough to let him see the Lens vs. Lyon match before she was born. Again, congratulations.

Here is the interview. Enjoy everyone.

Ligue 1 Talk: How did you get involved in Ligue 1 and football journalism in general? Have you always been a Ligue 1 follower?

Matthew Spiro: I’ve always loved football and I developed a soft spot for the French game as a kid. I loved the PSG team of the 1990s with Weah, Ginola, Rai and Leonardo. I remember going to the Parc des Princes during a school French exchange and was really taken by the atmosphere. I also recall the Montpellier of Blanc and Valderrama and Wenger’s superb Monaco side. There was something a bit exotic about the French game. It was more tactical than English football and there were so many amazing characters like Cantona, Roux or even the madcap Patrice Loko. I fell in love with the country during the 1998 World Cup when I travelled round taking in as many games as possible.

I started working as a journalist with a website called onefootball.com. It was a brilliant site that covered the global game and I was lucky enough to work with some excellent journalists. Sadly the site only survived two years but that period gave me an excellent grounding. I was keen to go abroad and, in 2002, I got a job with Eurosport in Paris. I’ve been in France ever since and I continue to enjoying writing on French football as well as commentating Ligue 1.

L1T: This has been one of the closest seasons in Ligue 1 history. Do you think that any of the Top 10 teams have a chance to win the Ligue 1 title, or will the cream rise to the top in the second half? Are there any dark-horse contenders for the title?

Spiro: That’s the great thing about Ligue 1. Prior to a game, you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen. I thought Marseille would power to a second title, so I could hardly believe the first two matches I commentated this season: OM lost the first at home to Caen, then went down again at Valenciennes! It’s simply the most unpredictable league in Europe. This season has been particularly crazy. We’ve had so many different leaders, including Rennes, St Etienne and, amazingly, tiny little Brest. But there is no doubt this has happened because the ‘big guns’– ie Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux – have really struggled. Brest have done brilliantly but they really shouldn’t be near the top. I think the cream is slowly rising… the top five are the best five teams and I think they’ll all finish high up.

I can’t see Rennes winning the title – they are solid and very physical but lack firepower and also some subtlety when Leroy isn’t playing – but the other four teams all have a great chance. Lyon have shown character to recover from such an awful start, Marseille have the strongest squad but lack a goalscorer, and free-scoring Lille must now be considered serious contenders. I have a sneaky suspicion it could be PSG’s year. Nene is the best player in France right now, while Kombouaré has plenty of options and has forged an excellent spirit.

L1T: Last year, both Lyon and Bordeaux’s results in the Champions League turned a lot of heads in the football community, giving Ligue 1 much needed publicity. How important are the Champions League results for keeping French players in France as well as bringing in new foreign players…or will Ligue 1 continue to be a stepping stone to La Liga or the EPL?

Spiro: It’s vital. Lyon, to be fair, have been consistently strong in the Champions League for a while. But I think Bordeaux’s performances last season were very significant. In France, people watch the foreign leagues a lot. There are three or four live English matches on TV every weekend. I think it got to the point where the French media were waxing lyrical so much about the ‘big four’ in the English Premier League, the French developed an inferiority complex. More than anything else, Laurent Blanc changed mentalities at Bordeaux. He convinced his players they could match the very best in Europe. Since Bordeaux’s drubbing at Chelsea in 2008, they’ve been really competitive, beating sides like Bayern Munich and Juventus. They’ve set an example to other Ligue 1 teams.

In terms of Ligue 1 clubs keeping their best players, being competitive in the Champions League is very important of course. Gourcuff and Gignac both stayed in France this summer because they knew they’d play Champions League football at Lyon and Marseille, which wouldn’t have been the case had they joined, say, Manchester City and Liverpool. Also, don’t forget the pound has lost value in the last few years, while high earners in England now pay more tax. All of that is helping French clubs keep players. On the flipside, French football is also suffering economically and top players still have ambitions to play abroad.

L1T: What is your biggest surprise team of the year, as well as the biggest disappointment, and why?

Spiro: There’s no doubt Brest are the biggest surprise. Alex Dupont has kept pretty much the same group of players that won promotion from Ligue 2 and they’ve repaid his faith brilliantly. Brest have really shown up Arles-Avignon, who brought in around 20 new players and have struggled horribly. I like the fact Brest play good football too. They don’t just defend and look to counterattack. That has to be good for Ligue 1. In that respect, Sochaux deserve a mention too: they were widely tipped for relegation but thanks to Gillot’s audacious tactics they have been rattling in the goals (only PSG and Lille have scored more).

My biggest disappointment is Monaco. They’ve been on the slide for several years but Guy Lacombe should be getting more out of the players he has at his disposal. They remain one of the biggest names in French football and shouldn’t be battling against relegation.

L1T: As far as players, there have been some surprises this season (Payet, El-Arabi, Cros, Sow).Are there any players that Ligue 1 followers should watch in the second half of the season which might surprise a few people?

Spiro: Hasn’t El-Arabi been a breath of fresh air! I really like his style and I wonder how good he would be in a stronger team than Caen. That is what I really love about Ligue 1. This league just keeps on producing exciting talent. Those of us who watch games regularly have the pleasure of getting to know tomorrow’s stars today. I was lucky enough to be at the Stade Vélodrome when a young Ronaldinho destroyed Marseille. I saw a little-known forward called Drogba take apart Liverpool, Inter and Newcastle in the same stadium in 2004. Anyone who saw these guys in the flesh knew immediately they were exceptional. Just like you and I both knew that Nasri and Chamakh would be hits at Arsenal.

Without wanting to sound like a know-it-all, there is no doubt that us Ligue 1 lovers get a good heads up on the tomorrow’s European stars. I’m already telling my mates in England to look out for people like Eden Hazard and Yann M’Vila…

In terms of surprises this season, I think Sochaux playmaker Marvin Martin is having a big breakthrough year. Lorient continue to bring through some fine players: I like the look of the centre-back they signed, Ecuele Manga, and I also rate the pacy Sigamary Diarra. Keep an eye on Emmanuel Rivière as well. He has missed a lot of chances of St Etienne this season but never gives up and has all the qualities to become a top striker. He’s quick, has good technique and seems to time his runs well. If he keeps his head on his shoulders, he could be in the France squad by next summer.

L1T: Last season, teams like Colmar, Quevilly, Plabennec, and Rodez had impressive matches during the French Cup. Are there any CN, CFA or CFA2 teams that football fans should keep an eye on, or any particulate match up next weekend which might call for an upset?

Spiro: The French Cup has produced some amazing upsets in the last couple of years and I think there will be more next week. Given their recent troubles, Monaco could be vulnerable against Chambéry (who play the fifth tier), and I have a sneaky suspicion Jarville could upset Sochaux. Sochaux have struggled badly away this season. Bordeaux may find it difficult against Rouen too.

To be honest, though, it would probably be good for the French Cup if the big teams did better this season. Guingamp won it two years ago when they were in Ligue 2, and PSG managed to lift the trophy last season by scoring just one goal against professional opposition!

L1T: As far as the business side of French football, we see some teams like Grenoble struggling financially. On the other hand, we see other teams like Le Mans going through a complete face-lift. Do these drastic changes worry anyone in the Ligue 1 community about the financial stability of the league, even if it is considered one of the more stable leagues in Europe?

Spiro: It’s not just Grenoble. Pretty much every French club, with the possible exception of Lyon, has felt the pinch in the last 12 months. Just look at Bordeaux; they are champions in 2009, Champions League quarter-finalists in 2010, but the fact they didn’t qualify for Europe this season means they have been to cut costs hugely. It’s a real shame to see such a good team disappear so quickly. Chamakh and Gourcuff simply haven’t been replaced.

People in France are certainly worried about the situation. The biggest concern is the TV rights deal, which is up for renewal in 2012. Last time, Canal Plus and Orange fought for the rights and that pushed the price very high. Next year, however, Orange say they won’t renew their interest, so the LFP are unlikely to get anywhere near as much. This is going to have a big impact on the clubs. In fact, the LFP are so concerned, they are launching their own TV channel in order to create competition. This is an unprecedented move and no one knows quite how the situation will pan out.

L1T: What will it take for Ligue 1 to make inroads in the English-speaking football community? Would Ligue 1 teams consider playing friendlies in the United States during the off-season like many EPL, La Liga, Serie A and SPL teams do? What is the next step that the LFP should take regarding this issue?

Spiro: As far as marketing is concerned, the French have been a bit slow to promote their game abroad. Ligue 1 has a surprisingly large following in certain countries; there are so many foreign internationals in Ligue 1 (Koreans, Poles, Japanese, Americans, Slovenians, Cameroonians etc) I feel there is a big potential to market Ligue 1 internationally. In the last couple of years, the LFP have been much more active. For example, they now play the ‘Trophée des Champions’ abroad (they played in Canada in 2009 and in Tunisia this year). Meanwhile, France’s most forward-thinking club Lyon have participated in the Peace Cup in Asia for the last few seasons. Jean-Michel Aulas knows how important it is to promote the ‘OL’ brand abroad. So there are some efforts being made.

TV is of course vital and the coverage has become much more extensive in recent years. The last PSG-OM match was beamed to more than 100 countries. Fox US and Al-Jazeera are among the channels screening regular live games, and if you live in the UK you can see the action on betting websites. The quality of Ligue 1 TV production is very high but I still feel they could make the coverage ‘sexier’. In England, the Premier League’s rise was aided by Sky’s brilliant coverage in the 1990s. Sometimes the French sell themselves a bit short.

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4 Responses

  1. Fantastic interview !!!

  2. A really good read – refreshing to find an Englishman that has such an in-depth knowledge of a league that isn’t the EPL!

  3. Excellent interview.

  4. M, Spiro, I appreciate your opinion very much. Great interview!

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