The title run of the team awash with Middle Eastern money is faltering. The difference, in France, is that advantage is being taken not by the league's most prestigious team but by one of the least.
Montpellier HSC have never won Ligue 1, their best finish being third in 1987-88. Their average attendance is eighth in the league, their annual budget 14th. But they are top, ahead of Paris St-Germain, on goal difference, and have a game in hand.
Given the imbalances of modern football, it is quite an achievement – all the more so, in a French league where the Qatari Investment Authority's injections into Paris St-Germain loom over everything else. This summer PSG spent a French record fee of €43m (£36m) on Palermo's Javier Pastore. Their official budget for the season was €150m, joint-top with Lyons. Montpellier get by on €33m – a fifth of PSG's funds.
A title race pitting exorbitant wealth against provincial thrift will inevitably push fans only one way. "I think there is a certain charm to Montpellier," Tom Williams, a French football journalist for AFP, told i. "People are fascinated by the notion that this unspectacular provincial club could pip Paris St-Germain and their billions to the title. People are enjoying the fact PSG are tripping up. And Montpellier would be the perfect team to deny them because of their background."
While PSG are a metropolitan club fuelled by foreign money, Montpellier are so provincial that they cannot always command the attentions of even the locals. Montpellier, like many towns in the south of France, is devoted to rugby first. The football team play in the Stade de la Mosson, which could hold 32,900 people but usually only has to put up with half of that.
If Montpellier have missed out on some of the modernisation of 21st-century club football, that is not all bad. They are fortunate still to be owned by Louis Niccolin, the controversial waste-disposal magnate who has owned MHSC since 1974. Known as either "Foufou Niccolin" or "Loulou Niccolin" – such are his eccentricities – he literally dwarfs everyone else at the club, taking up two places as he sits on the bench for home games.
"He's a typical old-school club president," Williams said. "He's most known for these colourful outbursts. Before Christmas he said he'd 'stab himself in the a*** with a sausage' if Montpellier won the league."Reuse content