BY MARK HARGREAVES
May 21st 2016, Stade De France. A late penalty from the irrepressible Zlatan Ibrahimovic has just assured Paris St. Germain of their second trophy for a second year running and a share of the record for most domestic cup wins in French football with 10. The path to that final was a journey spanning 5,000 miles and 15 months, but this wasn't the journey undertaken by the great Swede and his Parisian colleagues; it was an expedition embarked upon by the French Football Federation as they organised the largest football tournament in the world.
Celebrating its centenary this year is La Coupe De France, the French domestic cup. And while most people will know of it, few will be aware of the true scope of the competition and just how immense an achievement it is, in both its legacy and its logistics.
"La Coupe" is a tournament that never really ends. Preliminary rounds take place in March with the final played in May the following year. That’s 14 months of games, only punctuated by the Winter break. You would believe that even the most insatiable of thirsts for football would be satisfied with that abundance of matches, but why such a protracted tournament?
Well, to try to put it into perspective, the English FA invites around 700 sides, from Carlisle to Cornwall, to compete for the FA Cup every year. Almost 800 staff are involved in its operation from start to finish as it progresses through 14 rounds right through to the final at Wembley. It's common for fans of London based clubs to grumble at the prospect of a 4-hour journey to Morecambe or Fleetwood. Northern managers have often blamed an energy sapping midweek trip to the south coast for a poor result at the weekend. One might be fooled into believing that it's a tough life for football on this little isle. Until you take the time to see how things operate on the other side of the Channel.
The French Football Federation has the unenviable task of overseeing a tournament open to every single professional and amateur side in mainland France, and its overseas departments and territories. From its headquarters on the Boulevard De Grenelle in Paris, the FFF supports clubs in Southern Asia, Polynesia, the Caribbean and South America. In total the Federation has the unenviable responsibility of supervising 18,194 teams, spanning a fifth of the globe. In some instances, the Coupe De France has required some sides to travel over a thousand miles for a game, enough to put that midweek trip to the south coast into perspective.
The tournament began in 1917, and was founded in direct response to a political movement known as Union Sacrée, an agreement made by the strong French Left Wing and the besieged government to not pursue any political or social resistance during the First World War and unite under one flag, unifying the nation in a time of great hardship. This spirit of patriotism encouraged the FFF General Secretary, Henri Delaunay, to arrange a tournament that would have an equally unifying force on the nation's football.
The inaugural tournament saw just 48 teams, from France's top 2 tiers, compete. The final was between two now defunct sides – Olympique De Pantin and FC Lyon. The former would win the game 3-0 in front of a crowd of just 2,000 spectators – situation far removed from this year's final witnessed by a sell-out Stade De France crowd of 81,000 people.
Within 30 years the number of competitors in the tournament had risen to more than 1,000 and now stands at a mind boggling 8,506 with up to ten preliminary rounds, containing teams from all 16 tiers of French football as well as teams from Martinique, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Reunion and Mayotte. At every stage of the competition the number of teams is ruthlessly halved as, unlike the English FA Cup, every game in Le Coupe is a straight knockout without a replay in sight.
From the original spirit of inception, the tournament has been instilled with an ethos of inclusion and opportunity, a feeling that rings true when the Coupe continuously produces some fantastic shock results.
JS El Biar, a team now playing in the Algerian 5th tier managed to overcome, 4 time Ligue 1 winners and then European Champions, Stade De Reims who at the time boasted a team containing Juste Fontaine – who scored a record 13 goals in the following year's World Cup – and Robert Jonquet, widely considered to be the finest defender of his time. The plucky Algerians managed an unanticipated 2-1 victory. The Coupe’s founder would have been pleased with such an outcome.
In more recent years, Fourth Division Grenoble Foot 38 twice came from behind to eliminate Ligue 1 leaders Olympique De Marseille at the round of 32 in the 2015 cup.
To further add to the unpredictable nature of the competition’s results, home rule regulations were introduced in 1974 to create a more level playing field. These new rules meant that Ligue 1 teams must play away if they are drawn against sides from two or more tiers below them when they enter the competition in January, a system which helped amateurs Calais RUFC and US Quevilly make it all the way to the final in 2000 and 2012 respectively.
The tournament hasn't always been received with affection. Fully professional clubs in France have long expressed their displeasure with the format of the competition, especially the aforementioned home rule. Some argue that the substandard conditions at some of the amateur and lower league clubs gives them an advantage over the Ligue 1 sides who are more used to level, dry and lush pitches. This isn't usually an issue as, come January, the wheat is usually sorted from the chaff and only the Ligue 1 and 2 sides remain but, as mentioned, the Coupe tends to surprise.
When US Quevilly reached the semi-finals in 2012 they hosted Ligue 1 big boys Rennes. The team from Brittany had to leave their 30,000-seater stadium, travel north to the small town of Rouen and comfort themselves with the amenities of a 50-year-old 12,000 capacity stadium that you must assume wasn't fitted with a physiotherapy suite and Olympic sized swimming pool. Quevilly would use the knowledge of their rutted pitch to their advantage and send Rennes home with a 2-1 loss to chew over. Such juxtaposition is one of the charms of cup football and a hearteningly recurring theme in La Coupe.
A revolutionary spirit is almost written into the national identity of France and its people. The underdog serfs rising to overcome the wealthy bourgeoisie is a narrative close to the heart of the French, seen in all walks of life and is especially pronounced in their football.
The inflated number of teams competing in the Coupe De France is not just a chance for smaller teams to punch above their weight and gain exposure on the main stage, individual players have been brought to the attention of Europe’s biggest sides if they show their worth in the Cup.
Guillaume Hoarau, Dimitri Payet, Florent Sinama Pongolle and Lauren Robert can all trace their footballing roots back to teams from French overseas territories; teams that would never have had the opportunity to develop if not for the support given by the FFF and the inclusion in the cup.
The most notable example of this would be a small island in the Southern Indian Ocean.
Reunion is as far away from Paris as you could imagine, in terms of geography, climate and football, yet somehow this volcano, almost 6,000 miles from mainland France, manages to sustain 121 teams playing in 4 divisions. Reunion based side, and first club of French international Dimitri Payet, Excelsior, recently made it to the round of 32 where they faced Ligue 1 Lille. The support for the upstart side from the southern hemisphere came not only from its natives but from all of those across France who revel in these moments of the unexpected. While Excelsior would lose the tie, they would return home as kings.
This year marks 100 years since Monsieur Delaunay brought the tournament into being and, while there has been some consternation along the way, the Coupe is a marvel of world football and a testament to the unifying and inspiring nature of the game. While the World Cup allows football’s elite to face one another, and the FA cup can claim to be the oldest tournament in the game, nothing comes close to the scale of La Coupe De France. Vive la difference.