The Return of Saint Etienne – Youth Over Ego
After years of struggling to get back to their glorious past as one of France’ most successful teams, AS Saint Etienne are sitting pretty at the top of Ligue 1 and have also found a new star in Dimitri Payet.
Following in the footsteps of so many famous players who have worn the distinctive green shirt, Payet is fast becoming the next big thing in French soccer. The 23-year-old winger has come out of his shell after a mediocre season last year and set Ligue 1 alight scoring seven goals in the opening eight games. Last weekend, Payet scored the winner with a stunning free-kick to upset fierce rivals Lyon in the Rhone derby and confirmed his place in the French squad which was announced this week by French coach and former Saint-Étienne player Laurent Blanc. In stark contrast, Lyon who have dominated French football over the last decade now languish in the bottom four of Ligue 1.
To understand the importance of Saint Etienne’s reemergence to the top of French football, you have to take a closer look back at their long and illustrious history. The team was founded in 1919 by employees of the Casino supermarket chain. Since their inception they have gone on to win the French league title on 10 occasions and competed against Bayern Munich in the 1976 European Cup final and a prime Liverpool team in the infamous and thrilling European Cup 1/4 final of 1977.
As a Liverpool fan I always remember the name of Saint Etienne. When both teams clashed they were at the height of their success. Saint-Étienne had a cult following then, much in the way that French champions Marseille are revered today as Frances’s most supported domestic team. Looking back and watching the highlights of the match between Liverpool and Saint Etienne illustrates just how good both sides were as they battled it out in an epic European encounter. The game has changed so much since then, the atmosphere, passion and quality of some of the goals scored that night were unbelievable. That was when football was sport for the average fan and not a commercial product.
But time moves on and the fortunes of both sides have changed dramatically since then. The Kop is no longer rocking and Liverpool look to be going through the same decline that has engulfed Saint Etienne for the last 30 years. In stark contrast Saint Etienne are on top of Ligue 1 and for the moment whilst there is a lot of work to do if they are to match the endeavours of the heroes of the past such as Michel Platini, this young team are taking a step in the right direction. The fortunes of the Rhone club appear to be in their ascendency and their loyal fans will hope that this is not another false dawn.
There have been many disappointments for the fans of Saint Etienne in recent years. 1981 marked the end of an era for Saint Etienne as they won their last Ligue 1 title. As their form dwindled, the team have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Blighted by a number of high-profile scandal’s including:
1982 – A financial scandal rocked the club which affected the teams on pitch performance. As a result of the investigation the President, Roger Rocher, was forced to leave the club and spent several months in jail.
1982 – Also that year a sex scandal involving a ménage à trois involving Michel Platini, his wife and Saint Etienne team-mate Jean-François Larios hit the headlines and caused a big divide in the team and more tellingly the French World Cup squad that competed in Spain that year. Following the extra curricular activities in the bedroom, Larios became the fall guy and was dropped from the French squad, banished to never play again with Mrs Platini or the national team.
2001 – As a result of a judicial inquiry that implicated some of the management staff to the passport forgeries used by Alex Dias and Ukrainian goalkeeper and Maksym Levytsky, Saint Etienne were banished to the second division following a seven point deduction. The players were suspended for four months each for their role in the affair.
After a highly successful and colourful past, the club appear to have turned the page and a new positive chapter is being written. Many managers have come to the Rhone Valley with high hopes only to fail, but through thick and thin the support of the team by their loyal fans has not wavered. Finally, under the guidance of Albert Rust, Saint Etienne have proved that once again they can be a force to be reckoned with. It may be early days, but the team look impressive, with a blend of youth and some experienced players the team play attractive football and with Dimitri Payet, Blaise Matuidi, Emmanuel Riviere, Albin Ebondo, Bakary Sako, Loic Perrin and Sylvain Monsoreau the future looks bright for Saint Etienne.
After a well documented and highly embarrassing World Cup, French football is starting to come out of the doldrums and teams such as Saint Etienne and Toulouse who pride themselves on developing young talent are now thriving. This can only be a good sign for the French national team, who under the new leadership of Laurent Blanc have made a conscious effort to move away from the prima donnas of the past who have been granted a place in the squad because of their name and not their form. The young guns of Ligue 1 are being given the opportunity to shine by Laurent Blanc, so whilst there may be some inexperienced errors of judgement along the way from a young team, there will no longer be the need to suffer the supercilious behaviour of Domenech, Henry, Evra and co.
You may not know their names now, but you will soon. After over thirty years of depression Saint Etienne fans will be hoping that the future is green and white and that they can return to the halcyon days of the 1970′s. The ambitions of this young team will be much clearer this evening after they have faced the current French Champions, Marseille, at their home ground Stade Geoffrey-Guichard. Their fans support will be as fanatical as ever and if they win there is a growing consensus that the long wait for success may finally be over.
By Eoin Mundow