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.

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