Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Vive La Coupe de France - The Story of knockout football across the channel (and beyond)

When Calais Racing Union FC reached the final of the Coupe de France in 2000 it was one of the greatest underdog stories of all time. The minnows from the fourth tier of French football shocked the world of football by defeating Ligue 1 sides Racing Club Strasbourg and FC Girondins de Bordeaux en route to a cup final they could have scarcely have dreamt of. France's main knockout cup competition thrives on such underdog stories, however, and this was just another example of the 'magic of the coupe'. This is a magic not just on those Gallic shores, but also a magic that spreads to some of the furthest corners of the earth. Welcome to possibly the world's most fascinating domestic cup competition. Welcome to the Coupe de France. 

This weekend sixty four teams, from across France and even beyond, will take the field in the 9th round of the 2019-20 Coupe de France. It is a competition that sees clubs from all over the French mainland, as well as territories on several continents, face off in a tournament where amateur and semi-professional sides don't just beat the multimillionaires, but sometimes even make it all the way to the final.

The FA Cup may be the oldest knockout cup competition in the world but with over 8000 participants, the Coupe de France is quite possibly the largest. With the tournament including clubs from not just France but also from all French Overseas Territories it also brings some obscenely long away trips. The competition is also famed for its many upsets with the lowest ranked team always given home advantage when sides from two or more divisions apart face each other, making it easier for the little guy to have his day of glory. Also, with ties settled on the day and no replays, there really is no hiding place for the big boys when they struggle.

Ligue 1 sides will enter the competition for the first time this season at the weekend and they will have 19 sides from the fifth tier and below amongst them including one team that ply their trade at the eighth level of French football. There will also be a team from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

There have been some fantastic 'cupset' stories from the Coupe de France over the years as we shall see, but also of interest is the inclusion of those teams from the overseas territories. France's overseas territories date back to the French colonial empire and these territories have varying legal status and different levels of autonomy. Teams from these mostly islands in places such as the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, face off against their own in the early rounds before those of them that are left eventually have to face sides from elsewhere, including the French mainland, causing some mammoth journeys.

AS Tefana of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean faced a 34,284km round trip to Noisy-le-Sec in the Paris suburbs in 2014 and good luck finding a longer away trip in football than that! It did not end well for the visitors, however, as they went down 2-1 after extra-time. Travelling such long distances, however, can cause many complications as well as obviously being rather expensive. Long trips, sometimes with various stopovers, can bring problems such as lots of extra paperwork and needing varying different travel documents to in one recent case players needing vaccinations against yellow fever. The French Football Federation, however, can offer teams as much as €25,000 to the cover costs of such travel to and from varying far flung destinations around the world. 

This season, four oversees sides made it to the 8th round in December, the final round before Ligue 1 sides enter, and all four matches involved rather long journeys for one the teams involved. 

Club Franciscain from the island of Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean Sea travelled some 6,693 km to face fifth tier Tours from the Centre-Val de Loire region of the French mainland only to lose 2-1 after extra-time. Meanwhile, AJ Saint-Georges from French Guiana on the north eastern coast of South America also travelled to the Centre-Val de Loire region where they faced Saint-Pryvé Saint-Hilaire FC. That was for them a round trip of 14,304km and a very long way to travel just to lose 6-0 to a side that went down to ten men after 9 minutes. After travelling that far you'd think a little more than just 378 people would bother to come and watch you as well but nevermind.

Jeunesse Evolution from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean lost 2-0 at home to fourth tier ASM Belfort in what was a 14,122km round trip for the visitors whilst also at home were JS Saint-Pierroise who are based in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. Their visitors, ES Thaon, faced an 18,226km round trip and it didn't end well for the fifth tier mainland side as they lost 5-3 on penalties after 1-1 draw over 120 minutes. JS Saint-Pierroise are now the only overseas side left in the competition for which their reward is a trip to Ligue 2 side Chamois Niortais.

Many of those 19 teams from the fifth tier and below still left in this year's competition, along with the varying second, third, and fourth tier sides also still left, will be hoping to upset the odds against higher level opposition this coming weekend. Thirteen teams from outside France's top two divisions will actually host top flight opposition, all looking for some magic to bring the highly sought after cup upset to their arena. Sixth tier EF Reims Ste Anne Châtillons at home to top flight side Montpellier, eighth tier SSEP Hombourg-Haut facing fifth tier AS Prix-lès-Mézières, and sixth tier ESA Linas-Montlhéry at home to current Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain are just a few of the ties to look out for this coming weekend. Also worth a mention are Aviron Bayonnais FC, Tours FC, Stade Portelois, US Raon-l'Étape, and FC Dieppe, who are all fifth tier sides hosting top flight opposition.


Last season in the 9th round, when the Ligue 1 sides entered, 5 top flight clubs were knocked out by lower league opposition. These included Olympique de Marseille and Angers SCO who lost to fourth and sixth tier sides respectively. Over the last decade, there have been numerous other examples of top flight teams losing to lower division sides and you would probably need more than two hands to count the victories for sides from fourth tier and below alone. Possibly the most famous upsets of recent times, however, came when a fifth tier side named SO Chambéry beat three top flight sides in 2010-11.
Chambéry is a small picturesque town that lies in a valley surrounded by the French Alps and when AS Monaco came to town in 2011 the compact 3000 capacity Stade Municipal, home of the town's amateur side, was packed to the rafters. The locals could not believe it when their team won on penalties after a 1-1 draw and when it happened all over again in the next round they must have thought it was all a dream. Stade Brestois 29 were the second of Chambéry's top flight victims, like Monaco, also losing on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Things then got even crazier when FC Sochaux-Montbéliard came to town and were defeated by two goals to one, cue absolutely crazy scenes once more as another big name side are defeated. Their small ground had never seen anything like it, three Ligue 1 sides in a row defeated by the amateurs! Although Chambéry eventually lost to Angers, defeating three Ligue 1 sides was nonetheless an absolutely remarkable feat, stunning in fact. The scenes of players, fans, and backroom staff, all going wild after Brest and Sochaux are defeated really show just how special these moments are. 
You might think that once the minnows have had their day in the sun and their five minutes of fame, however, they will soon find themselves beaten by a top professional side and leave the big boys to fight it out in the later rounds. But this is not always the case, as I said earlier, sometimes the minnows go almost all the way...

Since Calais reached the final at the turn of the century, a further seven sides from outside the top flight have managed the same feat. In the past decade alone, two third tier Championnat National sides have reached the final with Les Herbiers defeating fellow third tier side FC Chambly Oise in the semi-finals before their eventual defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in 2018, and US Quevilly defeating two top flight sides before their final defeat in 2012. In 2009, meanwhile, Ligue 2 side En Avant de Guingamp actually won the cup, but the most magical of all Coupe de France stories occurred with that Calais run to the final in the 1999-2000 season. 

Calais defeated several Ligue 2 sides before facing Ligue 1 giants Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace in a quarter final match played at Stade Félix-Bollaert in Lens to ensure a bumper crowd. A club used to 800 fans turning up at their small home ground were now attracting thousands and thousands more at a much larger venue. When Calais won 2-1 it heralded something remarkable, a fourth tier side had reached the semi finals of the Coupe de France. Calais weren't done there either...

Bordeaux came to Lens for the semi final and after a 0-0 draw, there were wild scenes when Calais took the lead in extra-time which became even wilder when they went 2-1 up. In the stands, supporters hugged each other and leapt about uncontrollably, the inconceivable was happening. Then it got even more unbelievable. Mickaël Gérard took off his shirt and ran the whole length of the pitch when he scored to make it 3-1 with a minute to go in scenes that fans of the small time amateur side could scarcely believe. The small ferry port city on the English Channel coast had never seen anything like it, albeit these events technically took place some 100km away in Lens. Little known amateur side Calais RUFC from the forth tier had made it all the way to the cup final.

The Stade de France in Paris always plays host to the Coupe de France final, and on the day of the 2000 final, Paris was painted red and yellow (Calais home colours) as the town of Calais was left emptied with its inhabitants having travelled to the capital en masse. Fans of opponents FC Nantes Atlantique aside, the whole country and even beyond were right behind these plucky minnows. When Calais took the lead once again the scenes were incredible. The idea that an amateur side from the fourth tier could win the cup had not so long ago seemed ridiculous but now it was looking a real possibility. That goal came on 34 minutes, but unfortunately, 5 minutes into the second half Nantes drew level and 40 minutes later with the game seemingly heading for extra-time Calais hearts were finally broken. A Nantes player was brought down in the box in the last minute of normal time and a penalty was awarded. The villain from the spot was the scorer of Nantes' first - Antoine Sibierski. Sibierski, who would later make a name for himself in the Premier League, scored from his penalty and for little Calais, the dream was over as the fourth tier side had finally lost.
Of course, when a team like Calais can make it all the way to the final you have to ask, why so much success for the little guy? There are several possibilities as to why lower league sides have as much success as they do in the Coupe de France. The fact that France only has two professional divisions means fewer professional players and therefore the quality of amateur and semi-professional players is probably relatively high. This could well be one contributing factor. The fact that the smaller clubs are automatically given home advantage when playing sides two or more divisions higher no doubt helps too, as will the absence of replays. For the minnows, a penalty shoot-out surely has a higher probability of success than a replay away from home. But whatever the reasons behind the successes of the little guy it certainly does give competition lots of drama.

Upsets though do not have to necessarily involve teams several divisions apart, however. Stade Rennais finished some 39 points behind champions Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 last season and when the pair met in the final the result seemed a foregone conclusion. With their Parisian opponents hoping to take home the Coupe de France trophy for a fifth straight season, it seemed obvious that Rennes would lose and the champions would complete a league and cup double. As we've seen time and time again with this wonderful competition, however, the favourites do not always win, so perhaps we should not have been surprised when Rennes came from 2-0 down to secure a draw and eventually win on penalties. Given the nature of this competition, the now defending champions might be relieved that they start this seasons cup campaign with a home tie against fellow Ligue 1 Amiens SC as opposed to a tricky away tie against a small-time side several divisions below.

Is the Coupe de France the most remarkable cup competition in the world? Many will tell you their cup is better, but how many of the world's top domestic cup competitions will ever see a fourth tier side reach the final? I doubt very many if any at all! I must also ask, does the FA Cup, for example, see teams travel halfway around the world for a second round tie? Of course not! 

The Coupe de France surely is the most unique domestic cup competition in the world - Vive la Coupe de France!

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