Babyfoot bars and stylish stades

Previously regarded as the smallest of the five big leagues, France is now more of a major force thanks to unprecedented investment in two previously underachieving clubs, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.

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France

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Paris: 48.833086, 2.343521
Lens: 50.420113, 2.808723
Lille: 50.605903, 3.053513
Lorient: 47.740709, -3.346710
Monaco: 43.734391, 7.395172
Nice: 43.701637, 7.285309
Marseille: 43.294200, 5.403900
Montpellier: 43.586359, 3.893967
Bordeaux: 44.847593, -0.564423
Nantes: 47.196245, -1.562119
Lyon: 45.766804, 4.855270
Saint-Étienne: 45.416286, 4.377365
Guingamp: 48.565703, -3.153076
Reims: 49.263324, 4.040222
Toulouse: 43.607991, 1.447449
Metz: 49.122422, 6.157837

Factor in the major modernisations, rebuilds and new builds under way for Euro 2016, and the game in France can no longer be considered second-fiddle.

Even St-Étienne, the great French side of the 1970s, having won their first major trophy for 30 years, are back in Europe. Their predecessors as European pioneers, Stade de Reims, from the earliest days of the European Cup, returned to the top flight after a gap of more than three decades.

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OM/Peterjon Cresswell

Meanwhile the only actual French winners of Europe’s premier trophy, Marseille, the only club in France surrounded by the mass communal fan culture of a Naples or a Galatasaray.

A world away from the Mediterranean, a grey one up by the Belgian border, another populist club, Lens, have recently returned to the top flight. The town itself is looking forward to hosting Euro 2016 nearly two decades after the World Cup (and league title) of 1998.

Near neighbours and co-hosts Lille, with a gleaming new stadium on the city outskirts, also attract a significant following from the UK by Eurostar.

The French national side, full of goals at the start of the 2014 World Cup, so supine upon leaving it, are based at the Stade de France. Revolutionary when built in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis for the 1998 World Cup, it still hovers head and shoulders above the identikit stadia being built all over Europe.

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Stade Louis II/Peterjon Cresswell

Station to station

EasyJetRyanairJet2Monarchflybe and British Airways cover all areas of France. French national carrier Air France has a budget subsidiary, HOP!.

Paris Gare du Nord is around 2hrs 20min from London St Pancras by Eurostar via Lille.

Changing trains in Paris is easy by metro, for the main stations of Gares de Lyon (for the Mediterranean), d’Austerlitz (the south-west), de l’Est (the east), Montparnasse (the west) and St-Lazare (Normandy and the west). From Gare du Nord, trains leave for the north and north-west.

All train information and heavily discounted prices for print-at-home tickets bought in advance can be on the SNCF website.

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Chez Muriel, Lens/Peterjon Cresswell

Tables & trophies

The French league system runs from the top two professional divisions to the very lowest district level. Promotion and relegation is decided by league placing, without play-offs.

Top-flight Ligue 1 consists of 20 teams. At season’s end, the bottom three swap with the top three of 20-team Ligue 2.

Equally, the bottom three of Ligue 2 swap directly with the top three of the next level down, the semi-professional, third-flight, 18-team Championnat National.

The bottom four of the country-wide Championnat National drop down to the fourth-flight, the Championnat de France amateur, aka CFA.

The CFA is divided into four regional divisions, groups A to D. Here reserve sides of leading Ligue 1 clubs compete with top amateur sides. Unusually there are four points for a win, two for a draw and one for a defeat. Only the winners go up to the Championnat National.

The bottom four of each group go down to the CFA2.

The top two leagues and two main cups are overseen by the Ligue de Football Professional (LFP).

The French Cup, la Coupe de France, is the most venerable and prestigious in Europe. It is also unusual in that in involves clubs from overseas territories such as Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

Ties are decided on the day, by extra-time and penalties if need be.

The final takes place at the Stade de France in early May.

In France, the League Cup, Coupe de la Ligue, is also important. It is only open to professional clubs in the top three leagues. One-leg ties are decided by extra-time and penalties if required.

The final takes place at the Stade de France in April.

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Montpellier/Peterjon Cresswell

The weekend starts here

The Ligue 1 season starts early-to-mid August and finishes in mid May. Ligue 2 starts a week earlier. Both Ligues take a winter break, for around three weeks, just before Christmas into the second week of January.

The main match-time slot for Ligue 1 is 8pm on Saturday. You can also usually count on a game at 8.30pm on Friday, 5pm on Saturday and two or three on Sunday, generally 2pm, 5pm and 9pm.

Timings are set around a month in advance.

The main match-time slot for Ligue 2 is 8pm on Friday. There’s also games usually scheduled for 2pm on Saturday and 8.30pm Monday.

Timings are set around a month in advance.

The Ligue website has a schedule of match times for both leagues a month in advance.

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Stade Louis II/Peterjon Cresswell

Entry level

Nearly all clubs have online sales – look for the billetterie option on their websites. Tickets are also often distributed in club shops and the guichet windows at the stadium in the run-up to the match and a few hours before kick-off.

With average attendances for Ligue 1 at around 20,000, few games sell out. The exceptions are at Marseille, Paris St-Germain and the visits of either around the country.

Ticket agencies such as francebilletfnacbilletnet and hypermarket chains such as Carrefour and Auchan also distribute. Note that not all accept payment by credit cards issued from foreign banks.

The cheapest places are behind the goal, usually referred to as the virages. The main stand is the tribune principale, the best seats in the tribune d’honneur or présidentielle. The lower tier is inférieur, upper supérieur.

Tickets are pretty affordable, usually around €12-15 behind the goal, a decent seat along the sideline (tribune latérale) around €25-30.