When billionaire investors bought Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco in 2011, it seemed like the dawn of a new era for French football, a chance for the puniest of Europe's "Big 5" leagues to grow some financial and competitive muscle.
Pop! How quickly that bubble of optimism has burst.
Instead of catching up with the Premier League or the Bundesliga, a growing catalog of signs indicates that French clubs — with the exception of Qatari-owned PSG — are slipping further behind rivals in England, Germany, Spain and Italy. Russia, sinking hundreds of billions of rubles of public and private money into the 2018 World Cup and its football clubs, is also now snapping at France's heels.
Armed with an awesome collection of players, owners with seemingly bottomless pockets, and by far the biggest revenues and crowds in France, PSG has quickly become a European force. But it could be a long time — perhaps never — before the likes of Marseille, Saint-Etienne, Monaco or Reims play another European Cup final.
"It is alarming," France's junior minister for sport, Thierry Braillard, said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "Our problem is that there is a very big difference between Paris Saint-Germain and all the other teams."
One of France's World Cup stars, winger Mathieu Valbuena, said "au revoir" to Marseille this August for a bigger salary at Dynamo Moscow. More alarming: Russia vaulted ahead of France in the rankings UEFA uses to gauge the relative strength of Europe's leagues and, vitally, how many clubs they can enter in UEFA competitions.
While English clubs splurged record amounts to strengthen their lineups in the transfer window that closed this week, French clubs made do. For every euro spent recruiting players, the Premier League spent eight, research by audit firm Deloitte shows. The Spanish league outspent the top French division by a ratio of 4-to-1, with Italy's Serie A and the German Bundesliga also outspending it by more than 2-to-1.
Monaco pawned off its biggest stars, Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, to Manchester United and Real Madrid, respectively — a clear signal that the club's Russian billionaire owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, is losing his appetite for lavish spending.
Monaco's retreat leaves PSG alone as by far the biggest fish in a dwindling pond. Even PSG's president recognizes that is a danger for his club's future ambitions, because a championship becoming a monopoly risks losing its appeal.
Without a strong Monaco, France could also struggle to recoup the UEFA ranking points it needs to move back ahead of Russia. Unless that slide is reversed, France could be left with just one guaranteed spot in UEFA's lucrative Champions League from 2016.
And if PSG monopolizes that spot, by winning the league title year after year, it will scoop up tens of millions of euros (dollars) in UEFA prize money each season, while most or all other French teams could be left with none or far less. That, in turn, could set in stone the already yawning financial gulf between the Paris club and its supposed French rivals.
"We were counting heavily on Monaco to keep winning (UEFA) points," Bruno Satin, one of France's best-known player agents, said in an AP interview. "Now that they've slammed the brakes on their plans, we're asking ourselves what's going to happen and I think all of French football is going to suffer.