Biscuits, liquidators & drugs cartels
Oscar Ewolo is a trained pastor. But most of his sermons come in the dressing room. The 32-year-oldÃ¢ÂÂs congregation is Brest, which incidentally is the team he captains, his church the Stade Francis-Le BlÃÂ© - the unlikely setting of a football miracle on Saturday night.
It was third versus fourth in Ligue 1, Brest against Saint-ÃÂtienne, a top of the table clash by default after MarseilleÃ¢ÂÂs eagerly anticipated match against Rennes was postponed following a rainstorm of truly biblical proportions flooded the pitch at the Stade VÃÂ©lodrome.
Here was a chance to scale the summit of French football, a feat newly promoted Brest had only achieved once before in their history on August 12, 1986 at a time when FranÃÂ§ois Yvinec, an entrepreneur who made his fortune selling biscuits, was famously at the helm.
His colourful story is a cautionary tale and one that only serves to make BrestÃ¢ÂÂs recent achievements all the more remarkable, for Yvinec had delusions of grandeur, a Napoleon complex even, and would fly so close to the sun that it was only a matter of time before his wings were burnt and those of Brest too.
As is so often the case with football owners keen to make a splash, he sought adulation for signing the exotic. After luring JosÃÂ© Luis Brown, the hard-tackling defender who scored the opening goal that would set Argentina on their way to victory in the 1986 World Cup final, Yvinec then brought in Jorge HiguaÃÂn, father of Gonzalo, the Real Madrid striker, who would be born in Brest a year later.
Seemingly reluctant to rely on the local talent pool that would consistently furnish Brest with some of the finest French players of a generation, like Paul Le Guen, then Bernard Lama and David Ginola, the biscuit man very nearly bit off more than he could chew when he reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to his side being second from bottom in the table midway through the 1987-88 season.
Yvinec daringly travelled across the Atlantic to Colombia with the intention of signing Roberto CabaÃÂ±as, the free-scoring Paraguay international striker who played for AmÃÂ©rica de Cali, a club owned by the cityÃ¢ÂÂs notorious drugs cartel then at the height of its power.
Having inspired AmÃÂ©rica to the Copa Libertadores final three years in a row, CabaÃÂ±as was their star player and one that wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be given up lightly. Yvinec agreed a fee of $555,000 and drew up a contract only for the Colombians to decide that CabaÃÂ±as had been undervalued and could fetch much more.
They declared the contract invalid and sensationally Ã¢ÂÂdetainedÃ¢ÂÂ the Brest president for several weeks. Somehow, though, Yvinec managed to escape in a private jet, hopping from Bogota to Caracas then Madrid, his bravado becoming the stuff of legend once it emerged that CabaÃÂ±as was actually on the plane with him.
Welcomed back to France much like a hostage freed from captivity, Yvinec was immediately brought back down to earth with a bump when FIFA declared CabaÃÂ±as ineligible to play the remainder of the campaign. His trip had been in vain.
Brest had already filled their quota of foreign players for the season and by the time CabaÃÂ±as was available to make his debut, the team had been relegated.
Brest would bounce straight back, briefly adding to their ranks another Argentine, the penalty-saving hero from Italia `90, Sergio Goycochea. But even his superstition of urinating on the pitch for good luck couldnÃ¢ÂÂt save the club from oblivion. It didnÃ¢ÂÂt take a trip to Colombia to work out that Yvinec was recklessly dancing on the edge of a volcano.
In 1991, Brest finished 11th in Ligue 1, yet they were demoted for financial irregularities and shortly afterwards the liquidators moved in. The club folded with debts Le Monde claimed to be worth around Ã¢ÂÂ¬150m.
It was a tragedy. Brest is a football town. Its inhabitants donÃ¢ÂÂt care for rugby and the like. Ã¢ÂÂFootball is the only sport that is played unanimously here,Ã¢ÂÂ a supporter told the newspaper LibÃÂ©ration. Ã¢ÂÂObviously after having the Bolshoi at home, itÃ¢ÂÂs hard to settle for a street theatre.Ã¢ÂÂ
But thatÃ¢ÂÂs exactly what they had to endure as Brest were re-formed, starting from scratch at the bottom of the ladder. In 1999 the slogan was Ã¢ÂÂLigue 2 in 2002Ã¢ÂÂ. It would take another couple of years to make that humble dream a reality, the architect being a young Franck RibÃÂ©ry.
So itÃ¢ÂÂs certainly no exaggeration to say that the road back to FranceÃ¢ÂÂs top flight has been a long and arduous one, 19 years to be exact. Brest finally earned their historic promotion on May 8 with a 2-0 victory over Tours, naturally prompting thousands to congregate in the Place de la LibertÃÂ© and party into the early hours.
While the revelers were still nursing their hangovers, Brest president Michel Guyot and his coach Alex Dupont met to plan for the upcoming season. It was a sober discussion in stark contrast to the one then being held in Arles, who sacked their manager, brought him back, signed 18 new players, some with big reputations, and sacked their manager again after winning promotion.
Brest quietly went about their business, going against the established wisdom, adopting an approach that couldnÃ¢ÂÂt have been any more different from the disastrous one adopted two decades earlier by FranÃÂ§ois Yvinec.
Stability was now the clubÃ¢ÂÂs motto. Ã¢ÂÂHere the president presides, the coach coaches and the players play,Ã¢ÂÂ Dupont explained. Ã¢ÂÂWe have one ambition and thatÃ¢ÂÂs building with patience.Ã¢ÂÂ
Brest decided to keep practically the same team, showing confidence in the lads who had got them to the Promised Land. The players they did buy were undistinguished; the new recruits being three unknowns, plus a talented yet unproven youngster, an amateur midfielder and a back-up goalkeeper - hardly the kind of transfer campaign that inspires confidence.
In all, only three players on BrestÃ¢ÂÂs squad had any experience of Ligue 1. France Football unsurprisingly tipped DupontÃ¢ÂÂs side to finish between 15th and 20th in the table. Ã¢ÂÂThis is our job,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂWe donÃ¢ÂÂt have the means to do otherwise. ItÃ¢ÂÂs not the richest team that wins, nor the poorest. ItÃ¢ÂÂs the most enthusiastic. I want the lads to smile in the morning when they come to training.Ã¢ÂÂ
And yet the cynics appeared to be right, as Brest failed to win any of their opening three games. They were playing the same kind of open and expansive football that saw them finish top scorers in Ligue 2 last season. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas expressed his admiration of their style, but his praise meant little to Dupont.
Ã¢ÂÂAulasÃ¢ÂÂs words were flattering,Ã¢ÂÂ he sighed. Ã¢ÂÂBut they set me thinking and it led me to a reflection: I couldnÃ¢ÂÂt admit that we played well because in the end we lost.Ã¢ÂÂ Dupont now had a cultural revolution in mind. Born in Dunkirk, he settled upon a tactical withdrawal, working instead on BrestÃ¢ÂÂs backline.
Dupont - definitely a Brest man...(guffaw)
Ã¢ÂÂThe old adage is that the best defence is attack. Well, the best defence is good defending,Ã¢ÂÂ he quipped, once again showing the plain-speaking wit that characterises the Chti. Ã¢ÂÂThis doesnÃ¢ÂÂt mean we want to cower in our own half. It means that the whole team works together.Ã¢ÂÂ
Dupont abandoned his 4-2-3-1 in favour of the more solid 4-4-2, insisting that the distances between each line remain short. The full-backs were expressly told to stay back; The midfield to counter with prudence. And thatÃ¢ÂÂs how the bloc of Brest was built. Since that day in Lyon on August 28, the no-name defence hasnÃ¢ÂÂt conceded a single goal in Ligue 1.
BrestÃ¢ÂÂs streak of eight consecutive clean sheets is the longest in France since the great Paris Saint-Germain side that reached back-to-back UEFA Cup WinnersÃ¢ÂÂ Cup finals in 1996 and 1997. In goal for PSG back then was Bernard Lama, the former Brest `keeper whose likeness to their current No 1, Steeve ÃÂlana is uncanny.
Ã¢ÂÂHe is Lama,Ã¢ÂÂ claims Ewolo. Ã¢ÂÂHe is a cat with his long legs.Ã¢ÂÂ The 30-year-old shot stopper had only played 13 games in Ligue 1 in his entire career until this season. He is now one of only five goalkeepers in French history to go unbeaten for so long. ÃÂlanaÃ¢ÂÂs net hasnÃ¢ÂÂt bulged for an age - 794 minutes to be precise.
The jeu ÃÂ¡ la brestois may be conservative, but it doesnÃ¢ÂÂt bore, although that depends of course on your interpretation. Ã¢ÂÂI take a lot of pleasure in defending well,Ã¢ÂÂ Omar Daf, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs veteran full-back, told LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe. Ã¢ÂÂPlaying well is winning, right?Ã¢ÂÂ
BrestÃ¢ÂÂs style has its limitations, particularly at home when the visitors sit back and give up the initiative. It must also be said that DupontÃ¢ÂÂs side have been very lucky too against the likes of Caen [when forward Sambou YatabarÃÂ© was sent off in the first half], Valenciennes [when GrÃÂ©gory Pujol was ordered to retake a penalty which he then missed] and Monaco [when StÃÂ©phane Ruffier made a grave error].
But it would be a disservice to suggest that Brest donÃ¢ÂÂt have quality within their squad. While itÃ¢ÂÂs true that theyÃ¢ÂÂve had considerable trouble scoring - their attack being rated one of the poorest in the league - Nolan Roux is still Ã¢ÂÂthe most gifted playerÃ¢ÂÂ Dupont has seen in front of goal in 25 years.
Meanwhile Mario Licka and Romain Poyet showed in SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs 2-0 win over Saint-ÃÂtienne that technique isnÃ¢ÂÂt lacking at the Stade Francis-Le BlÃÂ©, the latterÃ¢ÂÂs delightful lob over JÃÂ©rÃÂ©mie Janot being particularly special not least because it happened to send his team top of the table.
So the question on everybodyÃ¢ÂÂs lips is how long will the run last? Well, Dupont has form when it comes to working miracles, most notably with Sedan in 2001 when he guided the Boars to an unexpected fifth place finish in Ligue 1.
Either way, it seems his job is safe for life. Ã¢ÂÂAlex Dupont is a wizard and I want to tell you that he wonÃ¢ÂÂt coach another club,Ã¢ÂÂ Guyot smiled. Ã¢ÂÂHe is here until he retires. I will never let him leave.Ã¢ÂÂ