In a story that sounds like the plot of a Hollywood film, Les Herbiers VF, a French third division team have set-up a Coupe de France final tie against the footballing behemoth that is Paris Saint-Germain.
The team who currently play in the Championnat National, the French equivalent of the EFL’s League One, are only one win away from pulling off one of the most audacious cup wins in recent memory. Even though PSG are the defending champions of the competition and are overwhelming favourites to triumph once again, the old romantic in all football fans will be hoping that Les Herbiers will be able to pull off an upset and bring the illustrious trophy back to the Stade Massabielle.
A unique competition
The Coupe de France is open to all amateur and professional clubs in both mainland France and their Overseas Territories such as French Guiana and Tahiti, this lack of entry requirements meant that the current 2017-18 edition had 8,506 clubs participating. It is unlike the domestic cup competitions in many other countries due to its unique rule that gives lower ranked teams a home advantage. If a side is ranked two or more divisions lower than their opponents, then the match is played at their home stadium. This rule is much to the ire of the top clubs since the quality of the pitches they end up playing on are the antithesis of the pristine playing surfaces they’re used to. This rule has led to somewhat of a precedent of lower ranked teams making it to the latter stages. In the 2000-01 season, Calais RUFC, a 4th division amateur club, made it to the final where they lost 2-1 to FC Nantes in front of nearly 79,000 people at the Stade de France.
A historic club lost in obscurity
Les Herbiers were founded in 1919 and in the first 79 years of their history they played in a regional league; however, at the start of the 1978-79 season they joined the newly formed 4th division for its inaugural season, marking a new chapter in the club’s history. This success was short-lived as only one season after joining the league they suffered consecutive relegations and would spend the next 30 years languishing in the lower divisions. In more recent years they started to climb their way up the leagues, this culminated in the club’s finest moment when, in 2015, they reached the 3rd division for the first time. This was uncharted territory and was truly a moment to be savoured by fans after the many years spent in the doldrums of the French football pyramid. Before this season, the club’s Coupe de France record was reaching the round of 16 so making it all the way to the final is a truly a remarkable achievement.
It could be argued that their route to the final has been fortunate in the sense they haven’t had to face any teams from Ligue 1, but they have recorded memorable victories over Auxerre and RC Lens who have both been in the top flight in recent years but now ply their trade in Ligue 2. In the semi-final, they beat fellow third division club FC Chambly comfortably 2-0 to book their place in the showcase event at the Stade de France. The capacity of which is 80,000 so is a far cry from their modest home ground that only seats around 5000 fans.
A story bigger than just football
The many subplots in this story makes this game feel more important than a regular cup final. The little guy versus the faceless corporation is a regular trope in the media and somehow seems extremely apt for the situation at hand. PSG are widely loathed by French football fans due to their Qatari owners spending exorbitant amounts of money to essentially buy domestic dominance. Their solution to almost all their problems appears to be throwing money at them, this notion of the club was only reinforced when they spent a reported £200 million to lure Neymar to the Parc des Princes to finally achieve their Champions League ambitions. There are few teams in world football that neutral fans would want to see beaten than one that is the epitome of the commercialisation of the modern game.
Les Herbiers have already secured their place in French football history, becoming only the 3rd team from the Championnat National to make it this far in the competition. However, if they go onto win it, they will be entered into footballing legend as the club who have dominated French football in recent history.