A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Imagine a land where cup competitions don’t need TV company hyperbole or a dusty rummage through the archives to find some romance.
A place where a fairytale cup run isn’t based on spending millions of petrodollars and then plunging the club into financial oblivion, instead entrusting postmen, bricklayers and those poor b**tards who work in call centres with making the impossible that little bit possible – and giving the masses, the real people and not the prawn sandwich brigade, some joie de vivre.
Ladies and gentleman, fear not, that place is not far away. The French Connection would like to humbly present Exhibit A – the retro-chic throwback magnificence that is the French Cup.
And the blog feels absolutely no shame in saying that while there was some hyperbole present in that last sentence, we can positively assure you that no soundtrack from The Verve was necessary, nor were any animals harmed in the making of the latest French Connection.
THE PREPARATION: MINI-GOLF, SOAPS & WII SPORTS
Our story starts in a three-star hotel in Forges-les-Eaux, a small spa town in Upper-Normandy where an amateur football team called Quevilly have gathered ahead of Tuesday night’s French Cup quarter-final against Ligue 1’s relegation-threatened Boulogne.
Their journey started on a cold October Saturday against AS Plateau, who they beat 4-0 on what can only be described as a Sunday league pitch.
Eight rounds later, fourth division Quevilly, among whom there is a policeman, a supermarket shelf stacker and some students, have somehow claimed the scalps of Ligue 2 side Angers and Ligue 1 high-flyers Stade Rennais, currently the seventh best team in France. “When you join this club,” Quevilly manager Régis Brouard told L’Équipe on Tuesday, “they tell you about the history. We now need to write a new page.”
Brouard was referring to Quevilly’s much-heralded cup pedigree. Formed in 1902 by local businessman Amable Lozai, who used to employ some of the club’s players in his naval repairs company, Quevilly reached the French Cup final in 1927 when they lost to Marseille.
In 1968 they eliminated Lyon on the way to the semi-finals, becoming the first third division side to reach that stage of the competition for 44 years. It’s little wonder that, anticipating another giant-killing exploit, Quevilly midfielder Pierrick Lebourg joked earlier this week: “All the world will talk about us – even the hairdressers.”
Considering the weight of history, cynics unsurprisingly expected Quevilly to crack. After all, they had been ‘stewing’ in Forges-les-Eaux since Sunday. But Brouard wasn’t going to let the pressure get to them, nor was he going to allow his boys “to stay in their rooms playing their stupid computer games” – although some of them did apparently get a Wii Sports tournament underway.
No, Brouard decided to ‘discipline’ his players by organising a round of mini-golf instead. He didn’t get in the way of them going to the casino either, even after his assistant David Fouquet caught some of the players red-handed having an unhealthy pizza evening – through pictures posted on Facebook.
“They’re all good sports,” Brouard laughed. “I know that they will all be in their digs come 11 o’clock.” Midfielder Fodie Traoré agreed. He had been given leave to spend his days watching French soap The Fire of Love. “It allows us to think about other things, without thinking too hard,” Traoré mused.
So despite all the expectation, Quevilly were utterly detached. Brouard had somehow managed to relax his players into believing that they really didn’t have anything to lose. And yet destiny – whatever that is – also appeared to be on their side.
Cédric Vanoukia, the team’s Guadeloupian right-back, who spent the 2006-07 season without a club after three potentially career-ending operations, received a present from his former Brest team-mate who had since gone on to bigger and better things.
His name was Franck Ribéry and after France’s friendly match against Spain earlier this month, the Bayern Munich winger gave Vanoukia a pair of boots especially for the cup. “Now it’s up to you to bring me to the Stade de France,” Ribéry joked with his old friend.
Only it now seems it really is no joke. Sat in the dressing room at the Stade Robert-Diochon last night, Brouard gave a team talk that put Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday pep-chat in the shade.
Behind him were three large pieces of paper pinned to a notice board on which was written: “We need to be: Pragmatiques, Courageux, Intelligents, Rigoureux.”
AND SO TO BATTLE
Inspired? Well, it obviously had the desired effect. Just over 90 minutes later, winger Anthony Laup was beaming: “It all went as planned.” Quevilly hadn't just beaten Boulogne. They had hammered them 3-1, racing into a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark thanks to goals from Florian Coquio and Laup.
However, after the sheer elation of going in front an eerie calm descended on the Robert-Diochon. Quevilly weren’t playing at home – they were forced to move the fixture to nearby Rouen, as their ground wasn’t big enough. But the players looked at ease, especially following Laup’s goal.
After all, Quevilly had set a record for not conceding in any of their previous eight cup ties this season. In that morning’s edition, L’Équipe had even proclaimed that “they defend like professionals”.
Hicham Rhoufir, the team’s impeccably groomed goalkeeper who had only ever been deemed good enough to be unfashionable Rouen’s third string glove-lover, had revealed how he prepares for matches by watching YouTube clips of his idol, Bernard ‘the Cat’ Lama.
And while he did eventually concede just before the break, Quevilly’s chances of progressing to the semi-finals never really looked in any doubt, certainly not after Abdel Majide Ouahbi re-established their two-goal advantage on 67 minutes. In recording a historic 3-1 victory, Quevilly became only the third team from the fourth division to reach the final four of the French Cup.
Back in the dressing room, a chant of “Souleymane” went up. The Quevilly players were invoking the example of Marseille defender Souleymane Diawara, who had promised to pay for his team-mates to have a champagne meal at a restaurant if they beat French champions Bordeaux.
Brouard understood immediately. He had paid for his players to go to a nightclub after their victory over Angers and then to go to a restaurant following their exploits against Rennes. Yesterday, he had to dig deeper, shouting his players another meal.
The lads have already booked a holiday to Spain with their bonuses, but the real reward is a semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain.
More from The French Connection
What a story! Surprised Ribery actually sounds like a gentleman slash old romantic. Hopefully they can 'do a Calais' and make the final. I eagerly await an update on this mad bunch of peasants. Allez Quevilly and Allez Le French Connexion
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