Wednesday, June 22, 2011

France was interesting this season, considering her peculiarities. Never big championship, yet, always respected one, and yet – not really respected. French football experienced similar difficulties like the game in Belgium and Austria – not tremendously popular and attended sport, leading to finacial troubles for the clubs, followed by mergers and bancrupcies. The French were never really crazy about football, which competed with Tour de France and rugby for audience and media attention. But there was also something else, hiding clubs’ crushes from outside view: contrary to many countries, clubs in France are better known by the city name than the actual name of the club: hardly ever someone associates Olympique with Marseille (or Lyon, or Avignon, or some other club with actually same name) – thus, mergers and subsequent changes of names usually escape notice, for the new club is still largely announced by the city name. And another difference: France does not have a ‘real derby’, something so big to capture both domestic and foreign public’s interest. Most cities have only one professional club, thus preventing development of hometown rivalries. Paris is unusual capital too – unlike other European capitals, Parisian football was shaky and quite lowly by mid-70s. Stade de France, once strong, concentrated on its rugby section and hardly had professional football team anymore. Racing was almost fantastic club – depending on sponsors, or the lack of them, the club followed weird amplitude – from very strong to entirely insignificant. The absence of stability affected its historic performance: even in a good year, it was hardly a chamionship contender. Red Star was already sinking in the twilight zone of clubs constantly moving up and down the First and Second Division. The weird birth of Paris Saint Germain and Paris FC of few years ago did not make them yet big clubs. In fact, the ‘good days’ of Paris FC, originally a half-brother of Paris SG, were already gone and the smaller club, abandoned from mighty financiers was steadily going down. As for Paris SG - typically, a club so young was hardly to be great yet: PSG had relatively good team, but was not yet a major force. No big Parisian rivalry emerged on one hand. On the other, the Parisian flux and relative weakness did not attract the wrath of the provincial clubs. The provincies themselves failed to produce derby as well – in part, because there was hardly any constantly strong club: the great days of Reims were over long ago. Many clubs were strangely unstable – a great season followed by dismal one and relegation was more the norm: clubs like Monaco were no strangers to Second Division, not to mention smaller fry like Rennes or Lens. Nice was keeping pace still, yet, obviously declining. Marseille was on a slippery slope too. Bordeaux was nowhere to be see, and Lyon… well, Lyon so far did not win a single title. Good, maintaining regular position among the top 5-6 in the league and nothing else. They were better in the Cup tournaments. The 1970s belonged to Saint Etienne and Nantes – not at all newcomers, previously strangers to success, but the revival and the ascent of French football in the 1980s can be easily attributed to these clubs and their steady dominance in the 1970s. They represented the new winds, especially Saint Etienne. ‘Les Verts’ were already on their second great winning period – they won four titles in succession between 1967 and 1970; their already 8th title followed the one they won the previous year. And just like in 1974, it was a double – the Cup was also theirs again.
The players were familiar by now: it was pretty much the same core or players year after year, with careful small adjustments for better. To my mind – for it is really difficult to pin point the best squad of constantly dominant and improving club – this was the bst vintage. Partly, because it was also the squad which impressed Europe by reaching the final of the European Champions Cup. Partly, because it was the most balanced squad St. Etienne had, including the reserve players. In the squad above everybody, except Curkovic, Dugalic, and Piazza, was a French national player. Add Robert Herbin as well…
The mastermind of great St. Etienne was former French national player, but this is not the reason. The reason is that he played during this season too: 36 years old, he came on the pitch against Troyes near the end of the championship. True, the title was already secured, but the coach not only played – he scored a goal from a penalty too. Not bad for a guy who deserves better place in football history than others. Alas, he remains somewhat underappreciated.
But it was his doing – introducing new way of playing, following the Total football model; introducing new players; bringing to new life older ones. Perhaps the best is to compare his St. Etienne to Marseille: at the beginning of the 70s Marseille was the likely candidate for establishing monopoly in France. The club spent money on talent, but it was already ‘sure’ talent: established stars, hardly young unfortunately. The pattern continued – and with this not only aging, but old approach to the game crippled Marseille. It was not a squad capable of adapting new ways and chronically close to retirement. The final blow was the Jairzinho – Paulo Cesar fiasco, who did not settled in the French league and were pale shadows of themselves. Back in the 60s St. Etienne was similar to Marseille – Herbin changed that: he preferred younger and not greatly known ones. He also preferred stability of the squad and did not make big transfers – he generally added one or two men from outside and the rest were club’s product. The aim was always at players fitting his tactical ideas and blending well with the rest of the squad. Herbin started coaching young – and was still young at 1975 – and was definitely closer to his players than other coaches – better relationship helped easier introduction of new tactics and methods. Relationships were important: Herbin played for St. Etienne and some of his players were former teammates. And he was still kicking the ball with the boys – not a ‘boss’ struggling with arthritis, but rather one of the guys, with his patent short. Under his guidance Lopez, Janvion, and the rest reached the national team. And it was under his guidance old player like Farison became a national player as well.
What is mildly curious is the neglect of the foreigners by their own countries: Curkovic and Piazza played mighty football year after year, yet… Curkovic was included in the Yugoslavian national time for the last time in 1970. He ended with measly 19 Yugoslavian caps. The reason was in part the old Yugoslavian policy not to include foreign based professionals in the national squad. But this changes pretty much in 1975… unfortunately for Ivan Curkovic, he had very strong competition – Enver Maric, Ognyan Petrovic, Petar Borota – and was never called. Oswaldo Piazza really made his name playing for St. Etienne and was occasionally invited to play for Argentina – a total of 15 matches between 1972 and 1977. Less than his fellow countryman based also in France – Hugo Bargas… in part, it was due to the opinion of the new coach of Argentina – Luis Cesar Menotti wanted Argentian-based squad and hardly ever called players working abroad.
No matter… St. Etienne was great team, going steadily ahead, firmly coached by Herbin. When Platini arrived a few years later it was hardly the same: the squad was not so finely balanced and never achieved the international success of 1975. The best year of Les Verts, and the exit of Bereta hardly mattered – Rocheteau was dancing his way to fame already. A team without a single weak spot.