In 1976, French Club AS Saint Etienne captured the heart of the French public with its glorious run in the European Champions Cup that ended in defeat in the Final vs. Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich (0-1) at Glasgow (May 12th, 1976). Their epic European adventure that stretched through many seasons, had made Saint Etienne, ‘Les Verts (the Greens)’ the toast of the Nation.
Many credit France’s Football revival due to the public interest generated from Saint Etienne’s memorable matches in the European Cups, known in France as ‘L’Épopée des Verts’.
The team contained some of the best French players around, such as Dominique Rocheteau, Jean-Michel Larqué, Christian Lopez, Gerard Janvion, Dominique Bathenay, the Revelli brothers, etc.
The main architects of their ascension were off the field. In April 1961, Roger Rocher became President of the Club. The man known for his trademark smoking pipe oversaw the development of the most dominant team in the Nation for nearly two decades with League Titles and Cups galore.
His chief recruiter was Pierre Garonnaire (a former player for the club in the 30s-40s and recruiter since the 50s), who had a keen eye in finding the best young talent around who would eventually make the step up to the First Team.
The last piece of the puzzle was the Team Manager Robert Herbin (known as ‘Le Sphinx’). He had joined Saint Etienne as a player in 1957 and was appointed as Player-Manager and eventually as Manager of the Team.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 99, March 1984(Roger Rocher and Robert Herbin)
Herbin would go on and win many titles as a player and Manager in his more than two decades with the Club. This triumvirate was regarded as a complimentary efficient unit responsible for the Club’s continuous dominance.
The match at Glasgow in retrospect was the zenith for the club. In the following years they were still a player in France and in Europe, but the magic and aura that they had achieved in Europe was slowly dissipating.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 69, September 1981-uploaded(Pierre Garonnaire and Robert Herbin)
In a bid to recapture this magic, Rocher signed France’s Superstar at the time; Michel Platini and Dutch striker Johnny Rep in the summer of 1979. They helped Saint Etienne regain the French League in 1981 (they missed out on the domestic Double by losing in the French Cup Final vs. Bastia).
While a League title could have been viewed as a return to prominence and stability, just brewing beneath the surface a Scandal was about to unfold, that would destroy this once great side.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 60, December 1980(Johnny Rep and Michel Platini)
Despite the latest League triumph, all was not well at ‘Le Forez’ (The region at La Loire near Saint Etienne). In the offseason, Jacques Santini (future National Team Manager) left to join Montpellier to gain some playing time. Upon departure, he criticized Herbin, not only as Manager, but his human qualities as well.
Attorney Andre Buffard (a member of the Club’s Administration), who would be one of the chief actors in the events that would follow, recounted that the early signs of trouble started in the spring of 1981.
According to him, many administrators were suspicious of Rocher’s financial practices at the club. Any attempts to question Rocher about the financial affairs and dealings of the club would result in no compliance by Rocher and his allies.
Rocher behaved like a dictator and his relationship with Herbin and Garonnaire was deteriorating. Many believed Rocher wanted to dismiss both loyal servants of the club.
That season (1981/82) despite challenging for the title and the Cup until the end, there was a negative mood at the club.
Michel Platini and Jean-François Larios were incompatible at midfield and did not complement one another that resulted in tension within the club (They would have even bigger troubles with one another that we shall get to).
Photo From: Onze, Hors serie 11, 1981(Saint Etienne squad, 1981/82)
Roger Rocher also wanted to place former goalkeeper, the Yugoslav Yvan Curkovic on the Technical Staff (against the wishes of Herbin).
The rift between Herbin/Garonnaire and Rocher was growing evermore.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 47, November 1979(Yvan Curkovic)
It was towards the end of March 1982, that Rocher learned of an impending ‘Coup’ against him.
The leaders of this anti-Rocher faction (de-facto pro-Herbin) were Henri Fiéloux and Attorney Andre Buffard (Members of the Club Administration).
Photo From: Onze, Issue 99, March 1984(Andre Buffard)
On April 1st, the ‘Loire-Matin’ newspaper informed its readers that Roger Rocher would be questioned in the Club’s General Assembly about the suspect Financial State of the Club.
Many refer to this newspaper article as the starting point of the ‘La Caisse Noire’ scandal.
This anti-Rocher lobby brought forth Four Items at the Club’s General Assembly meeting for Rocher to answer to:
1) The Club’s Financial Deficit and the actual cost.
2) The Contract with McCormack International.
3) The exact role of Yvan Curkovic on the Technical Staff and his salary.
4) Whether he is open to Power Sharing (since they felt he ruled like a tyrant).
The Communist Mayor of Saint Etienne Jacques Sanguedolce, who was a Rocher Supporter, condemned this and considered it a betrayal.
The meeting on April 5th took five hours (with a Pro-Rocher mob outside waiting).
At 1 AM, he came out of the meeting, and was still in control of the team. It appeared that this initial attempt to oust him had been unsuccessful.
He reassured that he would not conduct a witch-hunt on the opposition.
Herbin was losing popularity amongst the Saint Etienne faithful, as the instigators of this Coup were perceived to be pro-Herbin.
Herbin had himself declared that it was going to be either him or Rocher, one of them had to go.
On April 12th, Herbin’s house was broken into (presumably by pro-Rocher loyalists). Herbin also stated that he believed there had been an attempt to poison his dogs.
On May 6th, Rocher once again pushed for the inclusion of Curkovic on the technical staff.
Herbin and Pierre Garonnaire were now allied in their opposition of Rocher and believed Curkovic’s propsed appointment was an attempt by Rocher to lessen their influence by having his ‘own-man’ in the dressing room.
The Anti-Rocher faction once again demanded an Emergency meeting, After checking the books, 3,600,000 Million French Francs were discovered for the salaries of month of May that Rocher could or would not account for.
In addition, funds were discovered coming from ‘Boutique des Verts’ (Club’s merchandising shop) that were allocated to a yet unnamed source (that would soon be named ‘La Caisse Noire’).
With the pressure mounting on him, on May 17th, Rocher resigned (after 21 years) from the Saint Etienne Presidency along with seven of his supporters. It was a ‘tactical’ resignation, as he believed in the next election he would be overwhelmingly re-elected and his detractors would be kicked out.
Despite his resignation, he still maintained an office at the stadium with the title of ‘ASSSE-Promotion’.
In the meantime, the club had lost the French League title on the last day by one point to AS Monaco. They also lost the French Cup Final to Paris St. Germain.
At the end of that season, Michel Platini left having signed for Juventus.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 60, December 1980
Team Captain Christian Lopez (Pro-Rocher) left Saint Etienne after Rocher’s resignation and joined Toulouse. He declared he would have stayed had Rocher remained in control. Amongst the players, he was viewed as the strongest Pro-Rocher supporter. Along with Platini and Rep, he had refused to sign a petition declaring support for Herbin.
Photo From: Mondial, New series, issue 11, February 1981(Christian Lopez)
After Rocher’s resignation, Yvan Curkovic’s position at the club had become untenable and he was predictably ousted from the club in June 1982.
During the 1982 World Cup (in June and July), the extra-marital affair of Jean-François Larios with Michel Platini’s wife was discovered.
Rocher demanded the removal of Larios for his act; however, Herbin sided with Larios and maintained him in the team (needless to say, Larios was in the pro-Herbin camp).
Photo From: Mondial, new series, issue 15, June 1981(Jean-Francois Larios)
On July 17th, the anti-Rocher opposition (Fieloux-Buffard), who were now part of a caretaker board, reported to the Police and the Tax Authorities the club’s Financial Records’ Irregularities.
On July 18th, Rocher admitted that some players had been paid from a slush fund.
Upon this admission, the scheduled July 26th Club Assembly (where Rocher was due to declare himself as Candidate once more) was postponed until October.
On August 9th, Fieloux was elected as caretaker President. He refused to sanction an extraordinary General Meeting as demanded by the Pro-Rocher faction.
On August 14th, Rocher formally admitted the existence of ‘La Caisse Noire’ (The slush fund used for under the table payments).
On August 18th, Herbin and Larios declared that they had received payments from the ‘La Caisse Noire’.
In time it would be revealed that between 1977 and 1982 more than 20 Million French Francs were deposited into this fund. (Some had estimated the origin of this secret fund to as far back as 1947, but its most activity was during the 1977-1982 years).
Rocher used this fund (that he would refer to as a ‘war chest’) to be able to hang onto his best players.
In addition to the previously mentioned funds from the ‘Boutique des Verts’, additional sums were collected from the revenue from their European Cup matches.
A percentage from each source would be collected and placed under anonymous bonds.
On August 24th, a Television Investigation revealed that some of these funds were used as payoffs to local Politicians.
On September 10, Mayor Sanguedolce demanded the presence of a Representative from the Municipality to ‘keep an eye’ on the Financial affairs.
On October 13th, the temporary Board at the behest of the French Football Federation agreed to have a General Meeting on December 1st.
On October 21st, Lyon Prosecutor Jacques Fayen was appointed to this case.
On November 10th, The French Football Federation entered the legal process to have access on all the club’s paperwork.
On the days of November 16 thru 18, 1982, Rocher along with Louis Arnaud, Lucian Dumas, Jean Brunel (Treasurer), Jean-Claude Marjollet (Administraive secretary) and even caretaker President Fieloux (because he was aware of the ongoing irregularities) were all charged for Falsifying Documents, Mismanagement, etc.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 99, March 1984(The six accused: Top: Rocher, Arnaud, Fieloux, Bottom: Marjollet, Brunel, Dumas)
Before the General Assembly in December, Rocher had been told by the Prosecutor to stay away from the proceedings and not to interfere.
Pierre Fourneyon of the Pro-Rocher side withdrew his bid to be President, presumably for the possible return of Rocher.
Despite the charges, after the December 5th General Assembly, the Pro-Rocher faction came out victorious. Herbin’s fate was most likely sealed that day.
Rocher had lost the first part of the conflict to Herbin in May, but now had the upper hand (at least his faction was).
In fact had Pierre Fourneyron been elected President, chances are Herbin would have been dismissed with immediate effect.
The conflict with Buffard and Fourneyron bought him some time.
On December 7th, French Federation’s top Brass: Fernand Sastre and Jean Sadoul arrived at Saint Etienne to resolve the ongoing matter.
On December 9th, Paul Bressy, from the Pro-Rocher side, was elected as the new Club President. He held meetings with other members, players, and staff and explained that sacrifices would have to be made due to the club’s financial status. Herbin had even declared that he would accept a cut in his salary.
Bressy re-iterated that there would be no reprisals against the pro-Herbin crowd and everyone would have to pull together.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 99, March 1984(Mayor Joseph Sanguedolce and Paul Bressy)
For a short time, it seemed a semblance of stability had been achieved.
On the Technical front, the season had been disappointing, as the uncertainty on the matters off the field compounded with the loss of Platini and Lopez had affected the team.
The acquisitions of current and former Internationals: defender Phillipe Mahut and midfielders Bernard Genghini and Alain Moizan had not been enough.
The team’s foreign signing, the Danish striker Flemming Christensen also had little impact.
Photo From: Onze, Hors Serie 15, 1982
(Saint Etienne squad, 1982/83)
In the meantime, Claude Faure, the Municipality Representative from the Mayoral Office, had been nominated on the club board.
His inclusion was further sign that Herbin would be on his way out.
Bad results in the League had further weakened his position. The team’s League standing was one its worst in over a decade
After the New Year, on January 9th, 1983, Mayor Sanguedolce exasperated the situation by once again entering the fray and publicly blaming Herbin for all the club’s problems.
On the same day, Bressy summoned Herbin and told him to wait for the Postman, as he was about to receive an important mail from the Club (It was the letter of his dismissal).
Photo From: France Football, Issue 1918, January 11, 1983(cartoon showing Rocher delivering the mail to Herbin notifying his dismissal)
On January 10th, Herbin was sacked, as was his Assistant Bernard Gardon.
Gardon, a former player loyal to Herbin, was acting as a Superintendent on the Technical staff. According to Christian Lopez, Gardon was responsible for the petition to support Herbin and this had earned him his new position.
Guy Briet, the Manager of the club’s Third Division side (reserve team) was appointed as the new Manager (Financially the cheapest solution).
After his dismissal many of the players placed the blame on Herbin. Among them Janvion, Genghini and Johnny Rep, who outright described him as a bad Coach. Rep squarely blamed the crisis on Herbin for starting the conflict with Rocher.
Janvion, had actually wanted to leave in the summer after Rocher’s resignation, but Herbin and Garonnaire had opposed his departure.
Janvion felt that at one point Herbin had been an excellent Manager and should have left much earlier with his reputation still intact.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 63, March 1981(Gerard Janvion)
Defender Phillipe Mahut felt Herbin’s departure would bring calm and tranquility to the squad and they would be able to work in a more favorable environment.
The Mayor Sanguedolce had also stated that Herbin had refused a reduction in his salary, which was no longer compatible with the club finances.
Rocher from a distance declared that Herbin’s firing was logical given the turn of events.
Herbin’s main supporter was predictably Larios. He declared his intention to leave (he did so shortly thereafter).
Herbin had repeated many times he had no intention resigning and would have liked to work in peace to re-launch the club.
Many criticized the manner in which Herbin heightened the tensions by giving an ultimatum that ‘it’s either Rocher or me’.
Herbin left Saint Etienne as the most decorated individual in French Soccer. As a player he had won five League Titles and three Cups. As a Manager he had won four League Titles and three Cups.
More Importantly it was the Legacy of his squad’s matches in the European Cups especailly the Final in Glasgow in 1976.
Herbin would manage regional rival Olympique Lyonnais in the Second division (1983/85) before working in Saudi Arabia (Al Nassr) and then retuning to France (Strasbourg, 1986/87).
He would eventually return to his beloved Saint Etienne in 1987 and remain as Manager until 1990.
Pierre Garonnaire, was 66 years old and was due to retire anyway on March 31, 1983. Otherwise, he would have shared a similar fate as Herbin. (Garonnaire passed away on July 8th, 1998.)
Photo From: Onze, Issue 63, March 1981
Many felt Rocher and the Mayor Sanguedolce had plotted Herbin’s downfall. Bressy, despite his reassurances to the contrary, had been powerless since the Club needed the Municipality’s assistance to remain solvent.
Herbin decried the involvement of the Mayor’s Office in the mix, as they were outsiders, and felt his firing was an attempt by the Mayor to curry favor with the electorate to win votes (since Herbin was very unpopular at the time and was being constantly booed during matches).
If that was the plan, it backfired, since in March 1983, Sanguedolce lost the Mayoral election to the right leaning candidate Dublanchet.
On January 13th, 1983, Fernand Sastre and other Federation representatives checked the club’s books in greater detail. They discovered that Herbin, Gardon, Garonnaire, Larios, Patrick Battiston, Gerard Janvion and other officials had all been paid from the slush fund.
In all cases, the players knew that they were receiving illicit money, but were unaware of its origin (nor were the politicians).
Sastre declared that the funds had been reported to Tax Authorities and would be subject to taxation but there would be neither legal action nor penalties.
On May 4th, Bressy resigned under pressure from the opposition (Andre Buffard faction).
Andre Laurent succeeded him as President.
Shortly afterwards, Buffard revealed the existence of a second ‘Caisse Noire’ with bank accounts in Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
The following season (1983/84), Jean Djorkaeff was appointed as new Manager.
In the offseason the club lost many of its last remaining stars.
Patrick Battiston (pro-Herbin) joined Bordeaux and Gerard Janvion (the last survivor from 1976) joined Paris St. Germain.
Former youth prospect Laurent Roussey joined Toulouse.
Dutchman Johnny Rep returned to Holland (PEC Zwolle) and Bernard Genghini joined AS Monaco.
The ineffective Christensen also departed to pastures new.
The team now operating on a limited budget could only attract the likes of Paraguayan Carlos Diarte (Betis) and Poland’s Janusz Kupcewicz (Lech Poznan).
Photo From: Onze, Hors Serie 17, 1983
(Saint Etienne squad, 1983/84)
The team was severely weakened and struggled in the League.
The few remaining links with the past were goalkeeper Jean Castaneda and midfielder Jean-Louis Zanon.
On the Legal front, the new Prosecutor in charge of the case was Patrick Desmure (He had taken over from Fayen on February 1983).
On November 30th, 1983, he interrogated Rocher for six hours. Afterwards Rocher was placed in the Saint-Joseph Prison in Lyon.
He would remain in Prison until March 1984 and then released on bail.
At the end of the season, the once mighty Saint Etienne were relegated to the Second Division after a playoff against Racing Club Paris.
The Legal proceedings dragged on for nearly a decade. Finally on May 15, 1991, Roger Rocher was sentenced to three years of Prison (4 months suspended) and a fine of 800,000 French Francs (Prior to appealing, he had originally been sentenced to 4 years with 18 months suspended and a fine of 200,000 French Francs).
The sentence affirmed that Rocher had enriched himself 313,000 French Francs through his Company SFTP (Société forézienne de Travaux Publics).
Rocher to the end denied the accusations and stated that ‘Saint Etienne was my mistress for 21 years, would a man steal from his mistress?’
After Four months in Prison, French President François Mitterrand pardoned him on October 18th, 1991.
Despite his release, he still had to pay the fine. To raise the funds for his fine he was forced to sell his house. In addition, he was also forced to sell all his trophies to Montpellier President Louis Nicollin (an avid collector of such Memorabilia).
To this day, the club has not regained its past glory and has suffered further relegations in 1996 (3 years in Division 2) and 2001 (3 years in Division 2).
Since 2004, the team has been a mainstay at the Top Division and a stable team but nowhere near its former glory and is now playing second fiddle in the region to Olympique Lyonnais.
The ordeal had taken a toll on Rocher and he withdrew from Public life for the remaining years of his life.
Roger Rocher passed away on March 29th, 1997 at the age of 77.
He was the French club President with the most titles in the history of French Soccer (Nine League Titles (plus one Second Division title) and six Cups).
His was a cautionary tale that was not heeded by future French Club Presidents such as Claude Bez (Girondins de Bordeaux) and Bernard Tapie (Olynpique Marseille), who both in turn crashed and burned in their quest for glory.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 63, March 1981(Roger Rocher)
1-As far as the players, the primary beneficiary from this secret fund appears to have been Jean-François Larios who received 1,110,000 French Francs.
Others player included: Gerard Janvion (964,780 FF), Michel Platini (880,000 FF), Oswaldo Piazza (325,399 FF)…….Alain Merchandier (23,333 FF).
It appears Doninique Rocheteau did not participate in this scheme.
Match Organizer Christian Duraincie received 350,000 FF.
Robert Herbin rcceived 623, 222 FF
Political figures such as Lucien Neuwirth recived 50,000 FF and Michel Durafour received 90,000 FF.
France Football, Issue 1918, January 11, 1983 (‘La Loi du Milieu’ By Denis Chaumier, Onze, Issue 99, March 1984 (‘Tout, Tout, Tout, Sur L’Affaire des Verts’ By Guy Mislin)World Soccer, March 1983 (‘Saint-Etienne Scandal’ By Andre Duclos (aka Brian Glanville))