Biscuits, liquidators & drugs cartels

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Oscar Ewolo is a trained pastor. But most of his sermons come in the dressing room. The 32-year-old’s congregation is Brest, which incidentally is the team he captains, his church the Stade Francis-Le Blé - the unlikely setting of a football miracle on Saturday night.

It was third versus fourth in Ligue 1, Brest against Saint-Étienne, a top of the table clash by default after Marseille’s eagerly anticipated match against Rennes was postponed following a rainstorm of truly biblical proportions flooded the pitch at the Stade Vélodrome.

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 François 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 Brest’s 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 José 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 Higuaín, 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 Cabañas, the free-scoring Paraguay international striker who played for América de Cali, a club owned by the city’s notorious drugs cartel then at the height of its power.

Having inspired América to the Copa Libertadores final three years in a row, Cabañas was their star player and one that wouldn’t be given up lightly. Yvinec agreed a fee of  $555,000 and drew up a contract only for the Colombians to decide that Cabañas had been undervalued and could fetch much more.

They declared the contract invalid and sensationally ‘detained’ 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 Cabañas 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 Cabañas 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 Cabañas 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 couldn’t save the club from oblivion. It didn’t 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 €150m.

It was a tragedy. Brest is a football town. Its inhabitants don’t care for rugby and the like. “Football is the only sport that is played unanimously here,” a supporter told the newspaper Libération. “Obviously after having the Bolshoi at home, it’s hard to settle for a street theatre.”

But that’s 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 “Ligue 2 in 2002”. It would take another couple of years to make that humble dream a reality, the architect being a young Franck Ribéry.

So it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that the road back to France’s 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 Liberté 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 couldn’t have been any more different from the disastrous one adopted two decades earlier by François Yvinec.

Stability was now the club’s motto. “Here the president presides, the coach coaches and the players play,” Dupont explained. “We have one ambition and that’s building with patience.”

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 Brest’s squad had any experience of Ligue 1. France Football unsurprisingly tipped Dupont’s side to finish between 15th and 20th in the table. “This is our job,” he said. “We don’t have the means to do otherwise. It’s not the richest team that wins, nor the poorest. It’s the most enthusiastic. I want the lads to smile in the morning when they come to training.”

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.

“Aulas’s words were flattering,” he sighed. “But they set me thinking and it led me to a reflection: I couldn’t admit that we played well because in the end we lost.” Dupont now had a cultural revolution in mind. Born in Dunkirk, he settled upon a tactical withdrawal, working instead on Brest’s backline.

Dupont - definitely a Brest man...(guffaw)

“The old adage is that the best defence is attack. Well, the best defence is good defending,” he quipped, once again showing the plain-speaking wit that characterises the Chti. “This doesn’t mean we want to cower in our own half. It means that the whole team works together.”

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 that’s how the bloc of Brest was built. Since that day in Lyon on August 28, the no-name defence hasn’t conceded a single goal in Ligue 1.

Brest’s 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 Winners’ 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 Élana is uncanny.

“He is Lama,” claims Ewolo. “He is a cat with his long legs.” 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. Élana’s net hasn’t bulged for an age - 794 minutes to be precise.

The jeu á la brestois may be conservative, but it doesn’t bore, although that depends of course on your interpretation. “I take a lot of pleasure in defending well,” Omar Daf, the team’s veteran full-back, told L’Équipe. “Playing well is winning, right?”

Brest’s style has its limitations, particularly at home when the visitors sit back and give up the initiative. It must also be said that Dupont’s side have been very lucky too against the likes of Caen [when forward Sambou Yatabaré was sent off in the first half], Valenciennes [when Grégory Pujol was ordered to retake a penalty which he then missed] and Monaco [when Stéphane Ruffier made a grave error].

But it would be a disservice to suggest that Brest don’t have quality within their squad. While it’s true that they’ve had considerable trouble scoring - their attack being rated one of the poorest in the league - Nolan Roux is still “the most gifted player” Dupont has seen in front of goal in 25 years.

Meanwhile Mario Licka and Romain Poyet showed in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Saint-Étienne that technique isn’t lacking at the Stade Francis-Le Blé, the latter’s delightful lob over Jérémie Janot being particularly special not least because it happened to send his team top of the table.

So the question on everybody’s 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. “Alex Dupont is a wizard and I want to tell you that he won’t coach another club,” Guyot smiled. “He is here until he retires. I will never let him leave.”