Football World Cup: Allez Les Verts, an epic tale of rise, fall and hope

THE SUDDEN ascent to supreme power; corruption and catastrophe; then apocalyptic decline, prison, exile, and death. An epic rise and fall story.

It could be Napoleon, but it is also, in a nutshell, the history of Saint- Etienne, that Napoleon among football teams. Their equivalent to being crowned emperor was when the team marched up the Champs-Elysees, accompanied by some 100,000 delirious supporters, and given the accolade of a speech from the then president of the Republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

It was like Bastille Day, with Saint-Etienne representing the cream of the French state, but it was actually 13 May 1976. And that was after they had lost a match, albeit a significant one.

On the night before, Saint-Etienne had gone down to Bayern Munich, 1- 0, in the European Cup final at Hampden Park, after hitting the crossbar twice. If only the posts had been round instead of square, the argument goes, the result could have been very different.

It was a moral victory. In any case, it was the best result ever at that stage for a French team in a European competition. Not only did Les Verts top the French league four times in the 1970s, but with their high media profile and, above all, the fanatical following in the Stade Geoffroy Guichard (known as "the cauldron"), they succeeded in boosting both the image and status of French football.

However, if this was their apogee, then the 90s look like Saint-Etienne's nadir. This year they were stuck firmly to the bottom of the Second Division and only narrowly escaped relegation at the 11th hour into the largely non-professional Third Division. The stadium has been enhanced and expanded, but the crowds have dwindled to a measly few thousand.

What went wrong? Although there is general agreement on the facts, there are two divergent interpretations of the club's history. The most aggressive, conspiratorial line is provided by Benjamin Danet in his book, Ils Ont Tue Les Verts (They Have Killed The Greens).

The "they" in this case being largely the charismatic Roger Rocher (or "Rock"), who rose from a miner to become president of the club. In Danet's account, all that power and success and fraternising with politicians went to Rocher's head and induced him to write megalomaniac letters to, among others, Pope John Paul II, assuring him of Saint-Etienne's continued support after his brush with an assassin's bullet.

What brought Rocher down, and put him in a Lyons jail in 1983, were revelations of a caisse noire - or slush fund - amounting to some 25 million francs. The scandal coincides with a rapid slide down the rankings. In 1984 they lost 7-0 to Bordeaux and were relegated, and have yet to return to their former glory.

But Christophe Roy, who has red hair and freckles and works for the Office de Tourisme in Saint-Etienne, and represents a younger generation, puts a different complexion on things. For him, Rocher is still a "god". He died a year ago, but when, last month, there was a gathering at the stadium to cut the ribbon on all the new developments, the mere mention of his name drew a standing ovation.

Like Napoleon, Rocher, has been redeemed in his suffering and his death. "Rocher never filled his own pockets," argues Christophe. "Everything he did was in a good cause, for the benefit of the club. Not like Tapie at Marseilles!" (In all fairness, I hope to give Bernard Tapie the opportunity to give his own account in another article).

Although the golden age of 1976 seems like distant history now (Christophe was only five at the time), it is clear that it remains etched on the collective consciousness, not just in Saint-Etienne either. Although his family lived more than 200km away, they would drive in religiously every fortnight for the home matches. In the '70s Saint-Etienne were virtually a substitute national team. Still, says Christophe, fans come from as far away as Paris and Nantes.

"We have 8,000-9,000 regulars. Which, considering we are floundering at the bottom of the second, is incredible."

Unlike the people of Marseilles, the Stephanois do not like to "embellish the truth". So Christophe tells me bluntly that the present team is "not a strong team".

The future, on the other hand, looks promising. The under-18s have just won the French youth championship - as they did back in 1971, prior to their ascent. And on the back of this success, in the last couple of weeks, they have signed a deal with Arsene Wenger whereby Arsenal can "borrow" or ultimately sign their up-and-coming stars in exchange for an input in funds, coaching, and players.

The club has been put on a new financial footing, too, since Monsieur Bompard (a captain of the communications industry) took it over and pumped in funds and bought players. Thus Saint-Etienne, in the wake of the World Cup, are all set for a "renaissance" and "dreams of a return to European competition".

There is a saying about Saint-Etienne. "People only cry twice here: once when they have to come here to work; and a second time when they have to leave."

Fans like Christophe stay true to the team and the city precisely because it is struggling and hoping for better days.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high