Football: A game journal joins the party: Simon O'Hagan hails the success of L'Equipe, bible of French sports fans

Click to follow
AMID THE euphoria that swept across France last week after Marseille had become the country's first team to win the European Cup, there was special rejoicing in a high-tech office block in the south-western Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. This was not the headquarters of the French Football Federation, or an outpost of Bernard Tapie's empire, but the home of L'Equipe, the French daily sports newspaper - and national institution.

L'Equipe (tr: the team) had two particular reasons for celebrating beyond sharing in the general delight at Marseille's success. First, it had on Thursday broken its own sales record, selling 983,078 copies of the paper reporting one of the triumphs of French sporting history. Second, Marseille's win was belated reward for the paper for whom the football journalist, Gabriel Hanot, was working when he came up with the idea of the European Cup in the early 1950s.

L'Equipe's record circulation - more than twice as many as the Independent, the Guardian, or the Times sells in a day - was an astonishing achievement for a specialist publication. For the previous record - 823,587 copies sold - you had to go back to 1948, when France's Marcel Cerdan won the world middleweight boxing title. 'Wednesday was a very difficult night for us,' said Jean- Francois Renault, editor-in-chief of L'Equipe. 'But it was also a great adventure which we were all very happy to be involved with.'

Hanot, now dead, is alas little more than a footnote in sporting history - perhaps because he was only one in a line of extraordinary Frenchmen whose visions have given the world some of its greatest sporting events - Baron de Coubertin with the Olympic Games, Jules Rimet with the World Cup, and Henri Des

granges with the Tour de France. While Britain can claim to have invented many of the world's leading sports, it is the French who have seen how best to stage competition. 'I think we in France are very lucky to have had men like Hanot,' Renault said. 'Always we have thought up new ideas. We are very proud.'

L'Equipe itself is testimony to the French imagination. It started life as L'Auto in 1903, founding, under Desgranges, the Tour de France. The yellow jersey of the race leader was so chosen because L'Auto was printed on yellow paper. The first paper with the distinctive, italic L'Equipe masthead - all speed and style and panache - did not appear until 1946 when L'Auto, which had all but collapsed during the war, was merged with two other sports titles, Elan and La Vie de Sport.

Since then L'Equipe has been the French sports enthusiast's bible, occupying a place in the life of the nation for which there is no comparison in Britain. For a start, L'Equipe is more than just a newspaper. It inspires and organises events, too - in football, basketball, skiing, but above all, cycling. The Tour de France is still very much L'Equipe's own.

Does this not create a conflict of interest? 'It could in theory, but I don't think it has in practise,' says Gerard Marcout, a former football editor at L'Equipe, now sports editor of the cable television station Canal Plus. 'A few years ago there was a huge doping scandal in the Tour. The journalists did their job very well. Maybe they had some inside information, but nobody complained about them. There is a very powerful union of sports writers, who would certainly have acted if they had felt they needed to.'

Quite why Britain has never sustained a daily sports newspaper is often a matter of debate among those of us in the trade. The main reason is lack of advertising. Sport is seen by advertisers - wrongly, in the view of many sports journalists - as too downmarket and too male. This doesn't seem to be a problem for L'Equipe, a middle-market broadsheet, 'read equally by Jacques Delors and the man catching the bus to work in the morning', as Renault puts it.

'But, in the last five years especially, sports like golf and skiing have become much more high-profile here,' he adds, 'and the advertising has come with them.' Nowhere more so than in L'Equipe's Saturday colour magazine, as stylish a production as any Sunday supplement over here.

It has to be said also that, largely because of L'Equipe's presence, French newspapers in general cover sport only very sketchily. The field is left open to L'Equipe. In Britain sport is a much more important part of our daily papers. And a third reason is that British sports followers tend to be specialists - they may like one or two sports a lot, the rest not very much. The success of L'Equipe shows that in France le sport is the thing - be it football or judo, rugby or motor racing.

'Every day we cover between 20 and 30 sports,' Renault says. 'And although we love to have a French champion, we try to reflect the whole world of sport.' It was fitting that in L'Equipe last week the two ideals could come so sublimely together.

(Photograph omitted)