Amateurs reach French Cup semi-finals
Imagine a land where cup competitions donÃ¢ÂÂt need TV company hyperbole or a dusty rummage through the archives to find some romance.
A place where a fairytale cup run isnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ 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 nightÃ¢ÂÂs French Cup quarter-final against Ligue 1Ã¢ÂÂs 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. Ã¢ÂÂWhen you join this club,Ã¢ÂÂ Quevilly manager RÃÂ©gis Brouard told LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe on Tuesday, Ã¢ÂÂthey tell you about the history. We now need to write a new page.Ã¢ÂÂ
Brouard was referring to QuevillyÃ¢ÂÂs much-heralded cup pedigree. Formed in 1902 by local businessman Amable Lozai, who used to employ some of the clubÃ¢ÂÂs 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. ItÃ¢ÂÂs little wonder that, anticipating another giant-killing exploit, Quevilly midfielder Pierrick Lebourg joked earlier this week: Ã¢ÂÂAll the world will talk about us Ã¢ÂÂ even the hairdressers.Ã¢ÂÂ
Considering the weight of history, cynics unsurprisingly expected Quevilly to crack. After all, they had been Ã¢ÂÂstewingÃ¢ÂÂ in Forges-les-Eaux since Sunday. But Brouard wasnÃ¢ÂÂt going to let the pressure get to them, nor was he going to allow his boys Ã¢ÂÂto stay in their rooms playing their stupid computer gamesÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ although some of them did apparently get a Wii Sports tournament underway.
No, Brouard decided to Ã¢ÂÂdisciplineÃ¢ÂÂ his players by organising a round of mini-golf instead. He didnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ through pictures posted on Facebook.
Ã¢ÂÂTheyÃ¢ÂÂre all good sports,Ã¢ÂÂ Brouard laughed. Ã¢ÂÂI know that they will all be in their digs come 11 oÃ¢ÂÂclock.Ã¢ÂÂ Midfielder Fodie TraorÃÂ© agreed. He had been given leave to spend his days watching French soap The Fire of Love. Ã¢ÂÂIt allows us to think about other things, without thinking too hard,Ã¢ÂÂ TraorÃÂ© mused.
So despite all the expectation, Quevilly were utterly detached. Brouard had somehow managed to relax his players into believing that they really didnÃ¢ÂÂt have anything to lose. And yet destiny Ã¢ÂÂ whatever that is Ã¢ÂÂ also appeared to be on their side.
CÃÂ©dric Vanoukia, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs 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 RibÃÂ©ry and after FranceÃ¢ÂÂs friendly match against Spain earlier this month, the Bayern Munich winger gave Vanoukia a pair of boots especially for the cup. Ã¢ÂÂNow itÃ¢ÂÂs up to you to bring me to the Stade de France,Ã¢ÂÂ RibÃÂ©ry 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 PacinoÃ¢ÂÂs 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: Ã¢ÂÂWe need to be: Pragmatiques, Courageux, Intelligents, Rigoureux.Ã¢ÂÂ
AND SO TO BATTLE
Inspired? Well, it obviously had the desired effect. Just over 90 minutes later, winger Anthony Laup was beaming: Ã¢ÂÂIt all went as planned.Ã¢ÂÂ 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 werenÃ¢ÂÂt playing at home Ã¢ÂÂ they were forced to move the fixture to nearby Rouen, as their ground wasnÃ¢ÂÂt big enough. But the players looked at ease, especially following LaupÃ¢ÂÂs goal.
After all, Quevilly had set a record for not conceding in any of their previous eight cup ties this season. In that morningÃ¢ÂÂs edition, LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe had even proclaimed that Ã¢ÂÂthey defend like professionalsÃ¢ÂÂ.
Hicham Rhoufir, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs impeccably groomed goalkeeper who had only ever been deemed good enough to be unfashionable RouenÃ¢ÂÂs third string glove-lover, had revealed how he prepares for matches by watching YouTube clips of his idol, Bernard Ã¢ÂÂthe CatÃ¢ÂÂ Lama.
And while he did eventually concede just before the break, QuevillyÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂSouleymaneÃ¢ÂÂ 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.
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