France’s European Heartbreaks
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It is remarkable that a Footballing nation like France has only won the Champions League once in 1993 by Olympique Marseille.
Its only other European trophy is Paris St.Germain’s Cup Winners Cup triumph in 1996.
Despite being at the forefront of the creation of International and Club tournaments, France has managed to always lag behind the other top four European Leagues: England, Spain, Italy and Germany.
These four nations between them have managed to win most European Club competitions and continue to do so.
There have been many teams who came close such as the great Stade Reims side of the late 1950s that included Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine.
This team was unlucky to be contemporaries with the Real Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas and even Kopa himself later.
Photo From: Mirroir du Football, January 24, 1978(Stade Reims’ Raymond Kopa in action vs Real Madrid on June 13, 1956)
Photo From: Mirroir du Football, January 24, 1978
(Stade Reims prior to the Champions Cup Final vs Real Madrid on June 13, 1956)
Then there was the AS Saint Etienne team of the 1970s and its epic European battles with Dynamo Kiev, Hadjuk Split, PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool, etc.
This successful team was led by the triumvirate of President Roger Rocher, chief recruiter Pierre Garonnaire and coach Robert Herbin ‘Le Sphinx’.
It was captained by Jean-Michel Larqué, included some of the best French stars of the era: Dominique Rocheteau, Christian Lopez, Dominique Bathenay, the Revelli brothers (Hervé and Patrick), Argentinean Osvaldo Piazza and Yugoslavian goalkeeper Yvan Curkovic.
This team at its zenith in mid-to late 1970s was also unlucky to be competing with two of the best teams of the decade Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich and Kevin Keegan’s Liverpool.
Photo From: Onze, may 1976(St Etienne’s Bathenay during the 1976 Champions Cup Final vs. Bayern Munich’s Roth and Kappelman)
In the 1980s there was Controversial Club President, Claude Bez’s Girondins de Bordeaux.
Bordeaux was the first French club in a long time that tried to build a strong team by spending money.
This team coached by Aimé Jacquet contained the likes of Alain Giresse, Bernard Lacombe, Jean Tigana, René Girard, Patrick Battiston and in later years Jean-Marc Ferreri and the Yugoslav twins Zlatko and Zoran Vujovic, just got close but not enough to win.
It reached the semifinals of the Champions Cup and the Cup Winners Cup in 1985 and 1987.
Photo From: Le Livre d’or du Football, 1985(Bordeaux’a Alain Giresse vs. Juventus’ Zbigniew Boniek, April 24, 1985 Champions Cup, Bordeaux 2-Juventus 0)
By the late 1980s a new President came on the scene at Olympique Marseille, who was willing to even outspend Bez on the transfer market.
Bernard Tapie arrived at Marseille in 1986 with the declared intention of winning the Champions Cup or the Cup with the ‘big ears’ as he would call it.
He hired former France National Team manager Michel Hidalgo as Technical director and started building a team capable of winning the Champions Cup with striker Jean-Pierre Papin as his number one weapon.
In successive seasons, a glut of French and foreign stars arrived at OM.
West Germany’s Karl-Heinz Foerster, England’s Chris Waddle, Uruguay’s Enzo Francescolli and French starts like Eric Cantona, Manuel Amoros, Basile Boli, Franck Sauzée, Jean Tigana, Didier Deschamps, etc.
Perhaps the best team in the club’s history reached the Final in 1991, eliminating the great AC Milan along the way, only to lose on penalties to the Savicevic and Prosinecki inspired Yugoslavian champions Red Star Belgrade.
While this could have marked the end of an era, it unfazed Bernard Tapie who again went on a spending spree.
His and France’s dream of winning was achieved two years later with a team that actually contained neither Papin nor Waddle.
The 1993 squad that defeated favorites AC Milan was spearheaded by young Croatian striker Alen Boksic and veteran German striker Rudi Voeller and ably captained by a young Didier Deschamps.
However, as soon as this historic achievement was realized, the OM/Valenciennes scandal broke that somewhat tarnished the event.
Photo From: Le Livre d’or du Football, 1993(OM prior to the Champions League Final vs AC Milan on May 26, 1993, France’s only triumph to date)
When looking at it closer, one notices that some type of a scandal destroyed all these great French teams.
While Reims over the decades faded and eventually ended in the lower divison obscurity, Saint Etienne’s great team that included Michel Platini towards the end, crumbled because of the ‘La Caisse Noire’ scandal of 1982, where financial irregularities led to its downfall.
Claude Bez’s Bordeaux was also destroyed in the early 1990s by another financial scandal of under the table payments and massive debt.
They were forcibly relegated but later returned to the top division with Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry starring for them.
Since the mid to late 2000s, Olympique Lyonnais (OL) has taken up the mantle of France in the Champions League. However, despite some good results, they have never captured the hearts of the French populace who still reminisce about the exploits of AS Saint Etienne and OM.
Though OL must be praised for at least by all accounts working within legal parameters.
To explore reasons on France’s inability to win the top club prizes, one must compare it with the other successful Leagues.
France has never been able to match the glamour of the other top leagues.
The clubs have rarely had the type of financial incentive to lure top foreign talent who always end up in Italy or Spain.
For most of the 70s and 80s, the foreign players were either little known or ageing top stars finishing off their careers.
Sometimes, they were young players, especially from the African continent, who hoped to shine in France to land in one of the top Leagues.
And ever since the Bosman ruling in 1996, France has mostly an export nation, as most of its best players have left the League in droves.
As things stand France is resigned to its solitary Champions League win as nowadays even younger and younger players are lured abroad.
Top French teams are just not able to hang on long enough to their prized assets to build a team around.
The only exception to this was the OM squad of the Tapie years, who were able to sign top talent and hang on to them.
As a result they became the only team to win the top prize in club Football.
Another reason for French failures could be the lack of passion in Football.
While Football is the top sport in France, it doesn’t have the same sociological impact it has in Italy, Spain or England, where Football is the most important topic of conversation.
To illustrate the difference, Michel Platini once remarked that in Italy Football was born in 1934 with the World Cup triumph, while in France it only started in 1976 with AS Saint Etienne’s European run.
Despite the French National team winning the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000, and all the euphoria that came as a result, still the French League lost its stars year after year.
Just comparing the team rosters French clubs in the Champions league vs. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich shows the lack of quality, depth and wealth.
Until the foreseeable future, the Champions League is an even more unattainable dream for French clubs.