Fallen Paris giants Racing eyeing elite return as French soccer reforms

Two years on from the messy 2019-20 French soccer season which ended prematurely due to COVID-19 and the fallout is still being felt across the domestic pyramid. The collapse of the Mediapro television rights deal on top of the best of two years of evaporated matchday earnings has necessitated a private equity rescue package at professional level by CVC Capital Partners of LaLiga fame.

The Luxembourg-based British group have agreed a 13.04% stake in the Professional Football League’s (LFP) new commercial subsidiary which was definitively signed off on this Friday. It will repay a state-backed loan of around $200 million as well as provide around $1.2 billion in financial rescue funds for all Ligue 1 clubs and select Ligue 2 outfits with the bulk going to Le Championnat.

Changes to domestic and international television deals are expected between now and 2024 with Amazon a developing player in France and now targeting the addition of the Coupe de France to their catalogue. Meanwhile, the LFP is seeking to safeguard top-five status for the French game ahead of UEFA’s approaching reforms due from the 2024-25 campaign.

France’s two professional tiers will shrink to being 18-team competitions within the next two years which theoretically makes both more attractive and guarantees greater revenue slices. The semi-professional Championnat National 1 (third tier) is also expected to fully professionalize as part of a lower-league revamp overseen by the French Football Federation (FFF) as sizeable clubs descend.

Add in the reforms which have seen youth contracts grow from a maximum of three to five years in length and suddenly the French soccer landscape is about to transform itself. It will be survival of the fittest at the summit, but there will also be opportunities lower down for clubs to re-establish themselves at professional level in the coming years as rivals struggle to cope with the changes.

One such club well-placed to benefit from this shakeup are one-time French champions and five-time Coupe de France winners Racing Club de France. Le Racing lay claim to being the capital city’s second-most successful club behind the dominant Paris Saint-Germain but ahead of Paris FC and Red Star who are both currently further up the domestic ladder at present.

Founded in 1882, it is one of the country’s oldest clubs and calls the historic Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir in Colombes its spiritual home. Racing’s iconic sky blue and white hooped shirts still selling out today is a testament to their illustrious history despite the club’s fall from grace to the fifth tier as Racing 92 rugby usurped the multi-discipline sports club’s soccer exploits.

Now run by former actor Patrick Norbert and coached by his son — ex-PSG and Arsenal youth academy midfielder Guillaume — Les Racingmen are slowly moving back up French soccer’s pyramid. Ultimately, the goal is a return to professional status where the club lavishly made its name in the 1980s under Jean-Luc Lagardere decades before PSG’s Qatari ownership came to town.

“Our current sporting project was established just over three years ago,” Racing President Norbert explained exclusively to CBS Sports. “When we arrived, we had to get the locomotive of the first team back on the tracks. Since our first season, we have been in promotion contention. Unfortunately, first we missed out on the penultimate day and then COVID voided the two campaigns since.”

Enzo Francescoli, Pierre Littbarski, Luis Fernandez and David Ginola used to be just a few of the club’s superstar names. They might be long gone now, but Colombes remains a fertile breeding and scouting ground with 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Steven Nzonzi and Olympique Lyonnais’ Romain Faivre headlining Racing’s impressive list of active alumni.

Established European names also boast players birthed by Le Racing. SSC Napoli’s Kevin Malcuit, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Raphael Nya, AS Monaco’s Chrislain Matsima Parma Calcio-owned Yann Karamoh and FC Metz’s Ibrahim Amadou are all current examples which illustrate the club’s superb ability to identify and nurture young prospects from Paris’ veritable talent hotbed.

Before them, the likes of France internationals William Gallas, Louis Saha, Zoumana Camara and Benoit Cheyrou all passed through Racing’s ranks. AS Saint-Etienne’s Eliaquim Mangala was also born in Colombes before moving to Belgium as a child and he has since represented Les Bleus at senior level including UEFA Euro 2016 on home soil while FC Nantes’ Ludovic Blas is a local gem too.

“Racing must rise back through the ranks if we want to keep our best homegrown players,” said Norbert of the club’s remarkable ability to spot, recruit and then foster the development of youngsters. “However, there is also a partnership with a major foreign club being implemented which would enable us to keep our best players until at least the age of 18.”

That and France’s raft of incoming domestic changes means that Les Pingouins could soon be within reach of professional status once again. A double-digit lead in the regional Championnat National 3 will likely see them move into the fourth tier this term and that momentum could potentially lead to back-to-back promotions after their COVID frustrations.

“When the leagues were closed, Racing was top of the table,” explained Norbert. “Our shared objective is to reach the third tier by 2024-25. However, a professional sporting structure has been voted into place for as soon as the club reaches the fourth tier. This would mean training every single morning.”

Racing also stands to benefit from another major upcoming sporting project — the 2024 Olympics. The Summer Games will return to the French capital for a third time one full century after Paris first hosted the 1924 Summer Games with Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir a rare chosen soccer venue within the Ile-de-France region along with Stade de France and Parc des Princes.

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Racing Club de France Football

The ageing multisport stadium is being redeveloped into a shiny new sports facility which will boast multiple pitches for Racing’s men, women and children to play and train. It will also negate the need to investigate a potential home share with their rugby relatives at the impressive nearby La Defense Arena which started hosting games back in 2017.

Originally opened in 1907, Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir was one of the main sites for the seventh Olympiad and will act as a hockey base come 2024. After that, the Games will leave behind a stadium ready for Ligue 2-level soccer and facilities befitting this historic club and one which may have re-obtained its professional status by then.

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Racing Club de France Football

“Racing will occupy most of the site,” Norbert told CBS Sports exclusively. “Matches will take place at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir with four state-of-the-art synthetic pitches for our different teams to train on. The medical and fitness centers as well as a media area are solely for soccer. It will hold approximately 10,000 with the potential to expand up to 30,000 the higher the club goes.

“The 2024 Olympic facilities will be worthy of Ligue 2 while the extension would lift it to Ligue 1 standards. Soccer remains Racing’s standard bearer, even if rugby is dominant for now. The club’s history is built on seven decades of Racing as a soccer club and we are still France’s all-time seventh-ranked club.”

Historically, Racing eclipse regional rivals Paris FC and even cult favorites Red Star who also boast five Coupe de France titles. PFC are on the verge of what would be an historic promotion to Ligue 1 this season, but they have a long way to go to equal Racing’s contribution to French soccer and claims to being the capital’s second club while they have also poached many rival youngsters.

The next few years in French soccer will almost certainly see some casualties as Girondins de Bordeaux flirt with relegation from the topflight and AS Nancy Lorraine risk dropping out of the professional ranks — both due to woeful mismanagement. Enterprising FC Versailles 78 and Paris 13 Atletico are two local examples who could continue to flourish at just the right time along with Racing.

Promotion to the fourth tier could be a first step back toward the professional world. The combination of professional focus at Racing as France’s soccer landscape shifts along with the legacy that the Olympics will leave should offer this fallen giant a chance to finally tap into the awesome potential of its youth academy which has sustained it as a lifeblood throughout some very testing times.

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