Bordeaux's latest vintage feeling the pressure of history

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The walk back to the dressing room at the Stade Chaban-Delmas is said to be the longest in Europe, stretching for nearly 120m under the historic listed stands.

Amidst the din of the supporters above and the clatter of studs on the parquet flooring below, every single step provides a moment for Bordeaux’s players to dwell on the past, the present and the future. The distance itself encourages reflection. This, however, is a team that has been overburdened if not tormented by its own thoughts for a year now. Any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel has yet to materialise.

Back in late October the local authority in Bordeaux had to declare 1,200 seats unsafe for use after a crack emerged in the stonework of the ground. Nothing could perhaps have better illustrated the sense that the club was broken. “I can’t wait for 2010 to end both on a collective and an individual level,” sighed Benoît Trémolinas.

No one could possibly blame the Bordeaux full-back. After all, his team had collapsed like no other in recent memory. “For me, it was like a plane crash,” added his teammate Fernando. “At the end of the season we had the impression of no longer knowing how to play football.”

This time last year, Bordeaux were the toast of France. The reigning champions had a six-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 and Laurent Blanc had just witnessed his elegant side knock Ajaccio out of the French Cup with an imperious 5-1 win.

The Girondins had already booked a place in the League Cup final against Marseille and even more impressively were through to the last 16 of the Champions League after topping a group comprised of Bayern Munich and Juventus. On paper at least, an unprecedented quintuple was on the cards. Bordeaux had already won France’s equivalent of the charity shield in Montreal and were fighting convincingly on four fronts.

The seven-year itch had officially been scratched. It appeared that a team had finally been found to break Lyon’s cycle of dominance. But, it wasn’t to be. Bordeaux’s free-flowing side went into freefall shortly after January 5 when the President of the French Football Federation Jean-Pierre Escalettes told three radio stations in quick succession that Blanc was the first and foremost name he had in mind to replace Raymond Domenech once the World Cup concluded in South Africa. Though he later called reports of a secret meeting “completely false” and “absurd”, one only had to look as far as the dreadful results that followed at Bordeaux to get the inevitable sense that a deal had been struck.

The tide turned for les Girondins as soon as it seemd Blanc would walk

Much like dominoes, the Girondins were toppled with a seemingly irresistible force first in the French Cup, then in the League Cup and finally in the Champions League. Bordeaux collected just 21 points from the second half of the season and calamitously finished sixth, outside of the European places.

It was a disaster both on and off the pitch. The club was left with a deficit of €15m and things started to fall apart. “We have no money,” said Bordeaux President Jean-Louis Triaud. “We have built a team and a budget to play in the Champions League. We have to take responsibility for it.”

In the meantime, Blanc left as expected along with his influential coach Jean-Louis Gasset and was followed first by Marouane Chamakh and then Yoann Gourcuff, two players around which the 2009 title-winning team had been built, and upon whom its success had greatly hinged both in technical and tactical terms.

Rebuilding certainly wouldn’t be easy for the incoming manager. Bordeaux pursued Eric Gerets and Jean Fernandez, the Ligue 1 Coach of the Year, for much of May, but when it emerged that the latter would rather stay with Auxerre in light of their surprise qualification for the Champions League, the club reached out to an old favourite.

Jean Tigana had spent the last year tending to his vineyards and doing charity work back in his native country of Mali when he got a call from De Tavernost. Health problems meant that he had reservations about returning to the game following his dismissal from Besiktas in 2007, but the lure of Bordeaux proved too much. “It was my heart’s choice,” Tigana said. “For three years, I’ve received many offers from France and abroad… I would not have come back to coaching for any team other than Bordeaux.”

The sceptics of course wasted no time in pointing out that Tigana hadn’t worked in France for over a decade and that the title he had won with Monaco in 1997 was by now a fading memory.

But the club defended its decision. Tigana was already a legend at Bordeaux having made 251 appearances as a player, winning the league three times and the French Cup twice between 1981 and 1989 in a golden age remembered to this day as the best in the club’s history.

He helped define an era with France, forming part of the Carré Magique, a midfield quartet comprised of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez, which inspired les Bleus to glory at the European Championship in 1984.

Tigana had also quite literally forged a reputation among his former teammates as a take-names-and-kick-asses kind of guy. Interviewed in France Football, Marius Trésor said: “When we played at Bordeaux, Jean was the team’s ‘treasurer’ and he made a note of the players who were late.a”

After his first training session, Tigana revealed that he had reprised his old role: “The first thing that I asked of my players was to respect the hours of our training session. This morning, I noted that some players were late. It was surprising…” 

This was exactly what a fragile-minded side like the Girondins supposedly needed. “Jean has the competence, the experience, the image, the charisma and the personality” to coach Bordeaux, insisted Triaud. Six months down the line, however, he is starting to have serious reservations.

Winless in Ligue 1 since November 21, Bordeaux lost 2-1 to Marseille in their first game back after the New Year. Tigana’s side slid to 10th in the table. They were now seven points adrift of the Champions League places, hadn’t been on the podium all season, and were about to suffer the ignominy of being knocked out of the French Cup by Angers, a team ranked 15th in the second division.

“The club, like its supporters, deplores the team’s results,” read a statement on Bordeaux’s official website. “We understand if they show their disappointment, although any form of vandalism or violence will not be accepted.”

Bordeaux’s fans weren’t the only unhappy ones. The captain Alou Diarra had already called for the club to show its ambition in the transfer window only to be told by De Tavernost that “you can’t buy spirit” and that “one recruit alone won’t solve the problem.” Undeterred, he spoke up again after the Angers defeat and was deliberately vague in asking for “change.” The local hacks scratched their heads and pondered what he had meant before deciding that he might actually be turning against Tigana.

The names of Élie Baup, Rolland Courbis, Alain Perrin and Paul Le Guen were all mentioned as possible replacements while crisis talks apparently took place at Bordeaux’s training ground in Haillan. Tigana emerged defiantly the following day for a press conference alongside Triaud. What had felt like the end was merely a new beginning.

“I don’t want to abandon the ship in a storm,” Tigana said. For now, he would keep his job. Bordeaux’s directors had been playing good cop, bad cop. Triaud claimed the question of Tigana leaving had never once been asked while De Tavernost suggested otherwise. “The season started badly and it continues to be bad. There will be significant consequences if we keep playing matches of this nature,” he bristled.

The stats made for difficult reading. Tigana had a win ratio of just 30%. He was reminded by L’Équipe that four out of the last five coaches sacked in Ligue 1, had on average lasted just 13 days after receiving a vote of confidence. Following this logic, Tigana had two games to save his job. He won the first at home to Nice at the weekend, creating a degree of breathing space before the second, which comes this Sunday away to former club Lyon. Yet there is a suspicion that even if Tigana were to go back-to-back, each victory would be pyrrhic in nature.

Bordeaux's form has left Tigana scratching his head (see...?)

Indeed, not all the blame lies on his shoulders. Long-term injuries to Mathieu Chalmé and Marc Planus have left Bordeaux’s defence in tatters, prompting Fernando to drop back from midfield where his influence and rhythmic passing is missed. Alou Diarra’s six-match ban in October for doing a Paolo De Canio and pushing over referee Wilfried Bien also deprived the team of its only real leader at a delicate moment of the season. Then a change of style and system from a possession-based game to one predicated on the counterattack also required time for adaptation.

Upstairs had a lot to answer for as well. Triaud and De Tavernost hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory when managing the immediate post-Blanc situation. Investment in the squad was minimal during the summer, ostensibly for failing to qualify for Europe, but also because the departures of Chamakh and Gourcuff were both poorly handled and poorly timed. The former left on a free. The latter much too late for his €22m transfer fee to be reinvested in the team. “I am not a magician,” joked Tigana. “Unless M6 give me €100m, I will have to be clever in the recruitment.” Unfortunately Bordeaux have been anything but.

They brought in a pair of 22-year-old strikers who were largely unproven at the highest level, namely Anthony Modeste and Moussa Maazou. Both were too raw to fill Chamakh’s boots in the short-term. Bordeaux supporters were by now accustomed to much more.

While they adopted Modeste thanks to his goals, Maazou was a different case entirely. His loan from CSKA Moscow was canceled last week after he launched a broadside at the fans. Speaking to 20 minutes, Maazou said: “The people can say what they want. If they are disappointed, that’s their problem. I couldn’t give a shit. Me, I am fine. I have my contract with CSKA. I would prefer to stay at Bordeaux, but if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back. It’s not a problem. CSKA play in the Champions League.”

In retrospect the decision to let Fernando Cavenaghi leave has become even more implausible. The 27-year-old Argentine had scored 46 goals in 99 games for Bordeaux and given Chamakh had now gone his concerns about a lack of first team football should have been no more. Add to that the absence of a like-for-like replacement for Gourcuff, not that Bordeaux necessarily needed one after a change of formation, and several questions were being asked about the club’s ambition to stay among the elite in France let alone in Europe.

No greater example of the club’s reduced standing came than after they pushed the boat out to meet Lorient’s €12m asking price for Kevin Gameiro only for the in-demand striker to turn up his nose at the prospect and decide to hold out for a transfer to Valencia instead. Bordeaux ended up signing André, a highly rated 20-year-old on loan from Dynamo Kiev. It remains to be seen whether the bright young forward who was recently called up to the Brazil squad for a friendly against France actually lives up to the considerable potential he had shown previously at Santos.

And that’s the thing with Bordeaux. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are too many ‘known unknowns’ not to mention ‘known knowns’ such as the reported friction between Tigana and his assistant, Michel Pavon who was foisted upon him in the summer.

A source quoted at length in L’Équipe last week said: “The duo is stillborn. Tigana was chosen by M6. He is a friend of De Tavernost. He is a competent manager, but too distant from the realities of today in Ligue 1. He arrived on his own. It wasn’t easy for him. Michel is Triaud’s man. They are in constant contradiction. It’s no longer bearable for the group. The players go to training dragging their feet.” Tuesday’s France Football even claimed a clash between the pair during Bordeaux’s winter training camp in Morocco nearly brought about Tigana’s resignation.

So one doesn’t have to be a qualified sommelier to understand that this particular vintage from Bordeaux is not up to the standard of 2009. The grapes are sour, the bottle is corked and the arguments at the club suggest it only goes down well with beef. Sunday’s trip to Lyon will, of course, go a long way towards deciding whether it ultimately gets poured down the drain.