A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Michel Estevan looks on helplessly from the stands, his arms folded, protecting him from the unforgiving wind blowing around the Parc des Sports. Below him are Arles-Avignon, the team he had built from scratch, the team that was no longer his, playing a derby against the champions Marseille, a derby no one ever thought possible.
Just five years ago, Arles resided in CFA 2, France’s fifth tier. This was a team of postmen, insurance salesman and shop assistants. All they needed was a magician, but not the part-time sort who does birthdays and bar mitzvahs, rather one who can conjure results out of nothing.
Estevan would fulfill that role, returning to the club with whom he had two stints as a combative midfielder in the 1980s. And the rest, as they say, is history. Four promotions later, Arles-Avignon are undoubtedly what movie trailers would call “the feel-good story of the year.”
This was a club that had only become professional in June 2009, its unlikely rise prompting neighbouring Avignon, the City of Popes, to propose a merger, offering sponsors and the use of its 17,000 capacity stadium as tasty bait, the necessary mod-cons to register in Ligue 2.
And so Arles-Avignon was born, a hybrid split between two départments, les Bouches-du-Rhône and le Vaucluse, its training ground 37km away from its new stadium, its players mostly living in another city altogether, namely Nimes, formerly home to Éric Cantona.
Unsurprisingly the media soon wrote them off last season, looking for romance elsewhere. Phil Collins’ “Against all Odds” apparently isn’t a favourite on the French journalist’s iPod. L’Équipe weren’t convinced at all, even going so far as to publish an article entitled: “Who will join Arles-Avignon in the Third Division?”
Estevan would famously pin that piece of paper on the dressing room wall and leave it there for the entire season. That bit of pop psychology worked wonders. Arles certainly didn’t need Adidas to tell them “Impossible is nothing.”
Perhaps more than anyone, their promotion-clinching goalscorer Benjamin Psaume personified that mantra – he had been unemployed for a year and a half before joining the club.
Estevan: the French Dave Bassett...?
Of course, it should have been time for celebration. After all, Arles had reached France’s top-flight on a shoestring budget of €5.5 million, the lowest of any second division club in Europe. Instead, they have given Marseille a run for their money as French football’s No 1 soap opera, the relentless drama of which is comparable to watching a car crash – tragic, but compelling nonetheless.
“It’s a bit Hollywood,” admitted Arles’ striker Kaba Diawara, formerly of Blackburn and West Ham. That much was clear at the club’s shambolic pre-season training camp in Spain, which was attended by just 13 players. Astonishingly, Estevan wasn’t even on the plane with them.
Days beforehand, Arles shareholders had organised their very own Night of the Long Knives, ousting president Jean-Marc Conrad after it emerged he had offered Estevan a pre-contract until 2013, which included a severance package worth €600,000 without their prior knowledge.
Marcel Salerno and François Perrot both took Conrad’s place and set about making Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillette look like they’d cured cancer, ended world poverty and been fast-tracked to sainthood in one fell swoop.
“I bought an inn and turned it into a three-star restaurant,” Conrad said soon afterwards. “But with the new presidents there is no longer the same vision of football.” It was a dig aimed deliberately at Salerno, who had made his money in the restaurant business. There was no point engaging Perrot, as he reportedly never leaves Paris, and is neither seen nor heard.
Nevertheless, the tension surrounding Arles seemed to have been defused when Salerno announced on June 18 that Estevan would be signing a new two-year deal after all. The fans were appeased. But just as the ink was about to dry on that contract, the news broke that Estevan had now been given his marching orders pending a board meeting that would make his sacking official.
“We can no longer work in confidence,” Salerno told L’Équipe. Estevan was to all intents and purposes a dead man walking. The hero of the piece had been banished seemingly never to return, only to reappear no matter how improbably a week later brandishing the two-year deal he had been promised. It was farcical stuff with more “to me-to you” than even the Chuckle Brothers could muster.
Estevan would describe the situation as “a little storm”. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be the calm before an even greater one. Eager to put his stamp on the club, Salerno brought in 18 new players – a Ligue 1 record - at the recommendation of Rolland Courbis and Gérard Soler. “To compete with the big clubs, you are obliged to take risks. It’s double or nothing,” Salerno told L’Equipe.
The two Angelos from Greece’s Euro 2004 winning side - messrs Basinas and Charisteas - were brought in to great fanfare. And for a while it looked as though Salerno was reading from a now out of print book entitled: ‘Transfer Strategy, according to Florentino Perez’, as in came Francisco Pavón and a former next Zidane in Camel Meriem. The signing of Álvaro Mejía gave Arles the feeling of a former Real Madrid players’ support group.
Estevan had been excluded from all discussions regarding recruitment strategy and it wasn’t long before he aired his frustration. “They have told me a striker is coming, but I don’t know if he’s big, small, or even if he has two legs,” he complained sarcastically. “I am the coach. Of course I’d like to know who is coming. We mustn’t sign one just for the sake of signing one. We have 28 players already. It’s a lot.”
Charisteas: possibly not the answer to Arles' problems...
Having asked for a “killer” of a striker with a proven track record in Ligue 1, Estevan got Charisteas, who has scored twice in two seasons, and Jonathan, an unknown 19-year-old Brazilian from Goias. When he dared express reservations at Basinas’ signing, Salerno merely turned round and replied: “Can’t he be like a little Makélélé?”
It was an utter shambles. Estevan’s communication problems with the board now extended to the dressing room where French was no longer the lingua franca. “My English is like that of Fernandel,” he joked bitterly, referring to the legendary French singer.
When Arles finally made their much-anticipated debut in Ligue 1, it was unsurprising they showed such little togetherness. Last week’s 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain made it four defeats from four matches and Salerno blamed everyone but himself.
“I even had to ask myself if the players hadn’t been drugged,” he raged. “I have not signed dancers, but yesterday evening I saw dancers.” Arles were falling apart. The new signings were against Estevan. A number of them even went and asked for his removal after an altercation with Basinas on the training ground. The Greek had apparently sworn at him in Spanish.
But as long as Estevan could count on the old guard, it appeared Arles’ beleaguered coach would be OK. Yet he soon lost them too. Sebastién Piocelle, the club captain, told him at half-time against PSG that he no longer wanted to wear the armband. Estevan was now on his own. A few hours later, he was suspended pending dismissal again. It was Groundhog Day.
Robert Duverne, the team’s fitness coach, who was last seen melodramatically throwing his whistle away following a heated argument with Patrice Evra at the World Cup, stirred things up further by announcing his resignation. Initial reports claimed he was off to join Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa, but France Football suggested otherwise.
Salerno had apparently called Duverne for a meeting at a bar outside Arles’ old ground, but switched the location to a hotel so as to be more discreet. He then did something a little strange, reportedly handing Duverne his car keys. Fear not, though, for this wasn’t a swingers’ party, but a symbolic gesture nonetheless. Duverne had been offered the keys to the first team. He left in disgust.
So when Marseille arrived in Arles on Saturday night, Estevan was still there, sat in the stands alongside his old president Jean-Marc Conrad, maybe plotting a coup. When asked if he would consider taking the bench again, he said: “I don’t know anything about it. I have been suspended for five days and that doesn’t make me think that the club wants me. I think they’re looking for another coach.”
Lest we need reminding that’s exactly what he said in June, and if the last three months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected at Arles, as they are undoubtedly the most dysfunctional club in Europe.
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