AU REVOIR, COUPE DE LA LIGUE
Updated: Jan 28
This article was originally published on October 30th, 2019.
Last month, Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), the French league governing soccer body, announced that their second domestic cup competition the Coupe de la Ligue will be ending, after this season's edition concludes on April 4th.
This decision has the potential to affect the future of European soccer.
Coupe de la Ligue
The current Coupe de la Ligue tournament was established for the 1994/95 season and was modeled on the knockout style tournament of the English League Cup.
Unlike the Coupe de France, the country's most prestigious knockout competition, the Coupe de la Ligue is open only to professional clubs that compete within the country's top three divisions. The Championnat National, the country's third-tier, only has four professional clubs currently playing in the division.
The winner is rewarded with a spot in the Europa League, that spot will now be awarded via Ligue 1 placing.
Overall, there have been 14 winners of the competition since its inception. Paris Saint-Germain has won the tournament the most taking the trophy home on 8 occasions. PSG won the competition for five straight years before Strasbourg ended their stranglehold by beating Guingamp, in a penalty shootout, in last season's final.
The decision to call time on the Coupe de la Ligue was due to a number of factors, with the LFP stating mainly it was due to market conditions.
Furthermore, they would state “lighten the competition schedule, give players more recovery time and offer an additional place in the European Cups via the Ligue 1 classification at the end of the 2020-2021 season.”
“Depending on the market, the LFP retains the right to relaunch the competition in the future” added the statement from the LFP.
One key issue the LFP had with the Coupe de la Ligue was securing television rights for the upcoming 2020-2024 seasons. Four years ago, the LFP succeeded in more than doubling the domestic broadcast rights income for the Coupe de la Ligue, €23.9m, by rewarding more exclusivity to the premium television channel Canal+. Previously, France Télévisions had been paying just €10.5m per season for the exclusive rights between 2012 and 2016.
However, upon going to market 10 months ago the LFP issued the Coupe de la Ligue tender alongside the rights to the second-tier Ligue 2. The LFP successfully negotiated a €64m per season rights deal for Ligue 2, nearly triple the previous outlay, but failed to secure any broadcaster for the Coupe de la Ligue.
The French television audience for the Coupe de la Ligue final has fallen steadily in recent years. The low-profile 2018-19 final between Strasbourg and Guingamp was watched by an average of just 2.3m viewers.
It had been expected that the LFP would issue a new invitation to tender for the broadcast rights to the Coupe de la Ligue competition from 2020-21 to 2023-24 in a last attempt to salvage the tournament’s future. Especially since the LFP had recently signed up BKT, the Indian tire manufacturer, as the title sponsor until 2024 in a deal announced just 12 months ago and worth around €3m per year.
The fact that future competition winners will no longer qualify for the Uefa Europa League (from 2021-22), but a playoff for the group stages of Uefa’s new third-tier competition, has been another blow to the Coupe de la Ligue as it battled for its place in a busy football calendar.
Club presidents had also been looking at a radical overhaul of the competition format to drive new interest. Two new formats were under consideration, according to L’Equipe.
The first would have been to play a curtailed eight-team competition over 10 days during the period currently reserved for French football’s winter break. It had been proposed that the top eight teams from the previous Ligue 1 season would take part in a knockout format but broadcast and sponsorship revenues would be split among all league clubs regardless of participation.
This proposal, which would have excluded over three-quarters of French professional sides, was always likely to prove to be unpopular with the UNFP, the French players’ union, which previously protested against any shortening of the winter break.
The second proposal was to have clubs in four regional groups – North, South, East, and West – battling it out to reach the quarter-finals. However, doubts are said to have been raised by club presidents about those teams in the North group being disadvantaged by having to face the big-spending Paris Saint-Germain. There has also been skepticism about the appetite among broadcasters and fans for regional games in which first-choice players are likely to be rested.
Furthermore, Europe's top clubs have been pushing national governing bodies over the past few years to remove second-tier national cup competitions, in a bid to ease fixture congestion. These cuts in the domestic schedules would make room for more lucrative Champions League games.
With the LFP scrapping the Coupe de la Ligue after this season, leaving England as the only nation from Europe’s top five leagues with two domestic knockout competitions.
The English edition the EFL Cup, currently named the Carabao Cup, dates back to 1960/61 season. The English Football League created the tournament as a response to the increasing popularity of European soccer, at the time. Furthermore, the EFL chose to follow the blueprint of the Scottish League Cup, which had been proving very popular with supporters since its inception in 1946. The new tournament gave the EFL the ability to manage its own tournament without interference from the FA.
However, now the League Cup is fighting for relevance. After his Manchester United side swept past Burton Albion, in 2017, Jose Mourinho suggested that he would not be averse to the competition being scrapped.
It is easy to look at the League Cup and question its value to modern soccer.
For a lot of bigger teams, the competition is not taken seriously, especially with the riches on offer from European Competitions, such as the Champions League. The competition can be seen to stretch “Big Six” squads and potentially affecting the big money games.
However, when you look at the competition from the bottom up, instead of the top-down, things start to make more sense.
For sides who are outside the so-called “Big Six” bracket, the League Cup has brought some of the most famous moments in club history, with Birmingham City and Swansea City winning the title in 2011 and 2013 respectively, and a number of famous giant killings down the years such as Southend United and Coventry City knocking out Manchester United in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons.
The situation is different at lower-league levels. The League Cup remains a major revenue stream. It often proves the difference between life and death for cash-strapped teams.
Furthermore, there is also the unquantifiable buzz that is created by hosting Premier League teams and traveling to their stadiums. Whole towns and communities are gripped by those matches.
There are plenty of voices, and loud ones at that, calling for the final League Cup tournament from Europe’s big nations to be scrapped. However, for some, it still has an important place in the English soccer calendar.