Monday, February 27, 2012

So, what was really bright in France to suggest turning point and better future? Practically, only Nantes and Saint Etienne. Nantes was slowly changing its squad, replacing aging and middle of the road players with promising youngsters. The transition was smooth and Nantes stayed among the best French clubs – they finished 4th in 1975-76. Bottom, from left: Bargas, Amisse, Michel, Triantafilos, Gadocha.
Second row: Bertrand-Demanes, Bossis, Rio, Osman, Van Starelen, Rampillon.
Not a bad team at all and if Triantafilos and Gadocha were perhaps a bit of disappointement, Bossis, Amisse, and Rio were already starters. As a whole, may be the second best squad in France.
As for Saint Etienne, 1975-76 was arguably their finest season ever. Third title in a row; 9th altogether – a French record! What could be better? Robert Herbin never stopped shaping his squad and by now it was polished to perfection. Curkovic was unchangeable and solid between the goalposts. Janvion, Lopez, Piazza, and Farison were one of the best defensive lines in Europe. Janvion and Piazza particularly. Batheney, Larque, and Synaeghel were fine midfield, and Rocheteau, Patrick Revelli and Saramagna in attack. A dream team… with a bunch of ‘reserves’, who – every one of them – played for France at one or another time: Herve Revelli, Repellini, Merchadier, Santini. And young unknown talented players like Larios. St. Etienne played a close approximation of total football, just a bit more conservative than the ‘classic’ Ajax, but with Janvion and especially Piazza operating on the whole pitch. The Argentine made mighty foreys in attack and scored goals as well, yet, was quick in returning to defensive duties. Larque was elegant, creative playmaker with wonderful vision and tailor-made passes. And there was Rocheteau in attack – only 21 years old and already a big star. As a whole, Saint Etienne played technical attacking football, increadibly beautiful to watch, for it was inventive football. It was not a rough team and although there was some iron by now, physical destruction of the opponent was never part of their game. Outplaying was and since most of the squad was 25 years old or younger, it was still a team for the future – young, yet, vastly experienced. Unfortunately, there were crucial weaknesses as well, perhaps not detectable in domestic championships, but visible when the ‘green boys’ were put to the real test of greatness: European club tournaments. Tactically, the team was not very rich and played attacking game in every occasion, even when it was not working. They also kind of ‘expired’ in the last minutes of a match: not that much physically, but mentally. Looked like they run out of willpower and it was crucial deficiency when meeting German clubs. The last problem was attack itself: Rocheteau and Patrick Revelli were great and dangerous, almost unstoppable, yet a liability – both had the tendency of missing the right moment to shoot and score. It was just a tiny moment – one more move, one more touch of the ball, one more step, and the opportunity was gone… and both were constantly making this extra touch, extra step, extra move. The end result was plenty of missed opportunities, blocked shots, and lack of goals. A big limitation, really, for Italian, German, Spanish teams were quick in defense and also never missed a chance to score. It may have been one opportunity in the whole match, but the opposition was scoring, when the French had 15 chances and blew them up all. But even with such limitations Saint Etienne were fantastically good and one of the top teams at the time in Europe. Most importantly, fans loved to watch their wonderful brand of football. Alas, there was no justice… the three best St. Etienne players never got the fame they deserved: Curkovic and Piazza were not called to play for, respectfully, Yugoslavia and Argentina, and Jean-Michel Larque was sandwiched between Michel, Jean-Marc Guillou, and the young Platini and played measly 14 games for France between 1969 and 1976. Lacking enough exposure, the three never became mega-stars. A pity… they deserved to be.
But never mind – in 1975-76 Saint Etienne were almost at the top of the world and certainly at the very top of their form and talent. And with them the change of French football really started, and so far brought some fruits – the harvest was to come a few years later.