Tales from the Coupe de France
As the 16emes get underway, Will Schofield has a look back at some of the magic moments from the Coupe de France that you might not be that familiar with.
For the romantics and the dreamers.
There is a special aura that surrounds cup matches. It seems that on any given match day all chips are on the table and the stars have aligned, anything is possible. In the Coupe de France, small teams travel across the globe with the belief that they can cause an upset. When they pack their bags and board the team bus they carry with them a sense of possibility because they know that after ninety unforgiving minutes they have a shot at immortality, the semi-pros that dethroned the Kings of France.
On the team bus, the players visualise the game that is about to begin. The striker, who may work in a factory by day, dreams of finding the back of the net in a last-gasp winner. He pictures himself wheeling off to celebrate with the world at his feet and being showered with headlines, ‘history maker’, they read. The stadium is stunned silent except for a few hundred travelling fans in the corner, who will tell this tale to their grandchildren.
The bus has now reached its destination and the players are leaving it, one by one they pause as they get off the bus and look up at the stadium in front of them. The size of the task has become apparent but it is one they are up for, this is their everything and they aren’t about to let this opportunity slip. And here lies the true magic of the cup; for the top tier sides it’s another game. But for the teams from the bottom end of the football pyramid, every game is a cup final.
It’s the competition that features more revolution than Les Miserables.
RC Lens v Auby-Asturies
We’re going to start our Coupe de France journey closer to the inaugural edition, in 1917, than the present day. In 1942, the 25th edition of the Coupe, Auby-Asturies travelled to take on the team of the decade, RC Lens, in the 32èmes de finale. Auby is located in the Hauts-de-France region of France close to the Flemish border. Auby was most significantly a mining town during the War and paid little attention to football, the only team the sleepy town played host to was Auby-Asturies. Auby were in the regional divisions and thus had a mostly amateur side.
RC Lens, on the other hand, were flying.
Due to the war that was occupying most of France, the French football pyramid needed a radical shake-up to cut costs and keep it competitive. As a result, two parallel top tiers were created, the North and the South. Lens didn’t just participate in the North top tier, they made it their own.
It was a fixture that was central to a lot of intrigue – could this Lens side be too overconfident? A potential slip up could lead to one of the biggest giant-killings of all time.
The game did make history. But for all the wrong reasons for Auby-Asturies.
It’s almost inconceivable to think that a game can finish with the winner finding the back of the net over thirty times, scoring a goal every three minutes. RC Lens managed it thanks to their hero of the day Stefan Dembicki.
Dembicki’s career follows closely to that of French legend Raymond Kopa’s early days. Both were from the family of Polish immigrants who had moved to France to work in the mines. Both had originally had aspirations of working in the mines before finding an escape route into football. Both had been given a nickname by their coach.
Unlike Kopa, Dembicki shone during the war years when the Lens players worked together in the mines by day and trained at night ready for games on the weekend. The team spirit would have been incredible with all players close friends on and off the pitch. The team was nicknamed Blood and Gold thanks to their colours, however, this team truly symbolised it with Dembicki or ‘Stanis’ the crown jewel.
Stanis scored sixteen times that day with his powerful left foot that was said to be able to break nets. Stanis still holds this world record – the closest it has ever come to be being beaten was by Aussie Archie Thompson who scored thirteen times in Australia’s demolition of American Samoa. It should be noted though that club president and former Lens striker, Albert Hus, had promised the side a herring for every goal they scored. Stanis’ day did not end after the sixteenth ball had found the net – to cap off a wonderful performance he saw red in the 90th minute.
JS d’El Biar v Toulouse FC
Auby were outclassed on the day by a side that could easily have gone toe to toe with Europe’s best during this period. From one potential Europe-beating side to another, in 1957 Stade de Reims were riding high after making the European Cup final in the prior season, losing narrowly to a Di Stefano-led Real Madrid. To add insult to injury, Madrid had then signed Reims star man, Raymond Kopa. In a routine fixture in the Coupe de France Reims found themselves drawn against Algerian side Jeunesse Sportive d’El Biar. El Biar were based in Algiers and amid the backdrop of the ongoing Algerian war had managed to knock out Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence.
The game was scheduled to be held in the Toulouse, a safe haven for the Algerians. However, the game was brought forwards leaving many of the El Biar supporters at home. That didn’t seem to bother Guy Buffard, El Biar’s player-coach, and his team when they faced the golden generation of Stade de Reims.
Nobody expected El Biar to score, let alone win. And so the nation held its breath when Buffard found the back of the net with a free kick in the 4th minute. El Biar hadn’t received the script and were promptly dismantling Reims with their own style.
Buffard was a known admirer of the way that Reims played football. The football norm at the time across Europe was still Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation which had yielded so much success for Arsenal and Preston in the decades prior. Hungary’s Magical Magyars were on the rise with an early variant of the 4-2-4, which would eventually dismantle England at Wembley, and can be seen as the rise of modern tactics.
Reims, however, were different. Albert Battuex had his side play a patient passing game that would transition from defence to attack in a seemingly innate motion.
In the 19th minute, El Biar entered dreamland. Roland Almodaser doubled the scoreline from close range. It wasn’t by any means a pretty goal but it was effective and the history books will read it as a goal never the less.
Stade de Reims were able to grab a foothold in the game eventually when the second half came around, however, they were unable to find the net sending Algeria into euphoria.
This would be El Biar last hurrah, however, after they were unceremonially dumped out of the cup in the following round at the hands of Lille, losing 4-0.
El Biar showed the world a great underdog triumph beating one of France’s greatest ever sides – but it was one game. What if a team could repeat this over the course of a cup completion and make it all the way to the final?
Enter RUFC Calais, who in the 1999/2000 were able to put together the most unthinkable run in the history of the Coupe de France. Fourth-tier RUFC Calais arrowed on the side of fortune as they were major beneficiaries to a rule change in 1974 which saw Ligue 1 teams having to play away against sides that were two divisions or more below them.
Calais would see off second-tier AS Cannes in the 16èmes de finale and thus begin what came to be dubbed ‘Calaismania’. First up came the eternally troubled RC Strasbourg, despite their glory years Strasbourg have come to define financial instability, but that’s a story for another time. Calais saw off the side from the Alsace region in a 2-1 victory.
Following the elimination of Nîmes Olympique, Calais were the only side left in the competition not to be from the top tier, guaranteeing them a Semi-Final at home. A home that had become home through the course of the campaign with Calais’ 4,500 capacity stadium being swapped for Lens’ Stade Felix Bollaert.
Calais were an amateur side, their players had jobs which ranged from council staff to supermarket assistants. They were everyday men with huge dreams when the whistle was blown for kick off at the Stade Felix Bollaert in the Semis against Bordeaux. The game went to extra time following a lacklustre ninety minutes, lacklustre for Bordeaux, not for Calais. Incredibly they were still in the game.
France held its breath when Cedric Jandeau found the back of the net with a speculative first-time effort that curled across the face of goal and into the top right corner. It then erupted when Mathieu Millen got Calais a second, the impossible dream now on the cards and Calais had all of France willing them on. This translated to the players on the pitch, they were no longer just amateurs, they were all the children of France playing without fear to win it all.
Calais found the net once more. Cue pandemonium. Calais were dubbed as “Extraordiners” by the press the next morning, a mantle they would hold until the final. 25% of Calais population travelled to Paris to watch the final, which came against the previous year’s winner Nantes. The red and gold of Calais took over Paris, save for a couple of thousand Nantes fans. The romantics among the French were desperate to see David slay Goliath. Yet others wanted to see football triumph and Nantes represent France in the UEFA Cup.
The Stade de France erupted in the 34th minute when Dutitre found the back of the net from a scrappy goal, not something you would write home about but an effective goal. But this would be the climax of the Calais tale when they experienced heartbreak in the 90th minute thanks to a penalty which saw the title snatched away from them in the dying embers of the game.
From heartbreak to glory and back from the brink comes PSG. The team that was formed as a result of a consortium in 1970 are the most recent team to make history in the Coupe. Coming up to its 100th edition no team had ever managed to win the Coupe de France alongside the Coupe de la Ligue (or previous iterations) and Ligue 1 in one domestic campaign. It wasn’t far-fetched to believe that PSG would become the first side to accomplish this, after all, they had a held a monopoly over French football since their takeover which had seen them bring in talent from across the globe such as Swedish target man Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It would be Edinson Cavani who would break the deadlock and ultimately win the tie, against Ligue 2 side AJ Auxerre. The Parisians would triumph in a cagey encounter and coupled with a Trophee des Champions victory in pre-season PSG became the first side in history to win the domestic quadruple.
Whilst it is amazing to hear about a small team knock out one of the big boys, there is something refreshing about the favourite showing his dominance and wiping out everything in its path. People may not agree with the way PSG reached the pinnacle of French football, but they can’t deny they are a quality outfit, and one of the best teams France has ever seen.
“C’est toujours difficile de faire de la fiction avec le sport, car les images réelles sont trop fortes pour être représentées” screamed commentator Nelson Monfort following Calais’ run to the final. The sentence roughly translates to “Sport doesn’t lend itself to fiction, because it’s real-life images are too powerful to be conveyed.”
In this one sentence, Montfort captured exactly what the Coupe is, a special competition in what the impossible is possible. And so here’s to the Coupe de France and more spectacular moments.