The extraordinary rise of Sedan

By John Lichfield in Sedan
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The Independent Football

A team who were semi-professional until four years ago are now in sight of becoming France's 'Autumn Champions'.

A team who were semi-professional until four years ago are now in sight of becoming France's 'Autumn Champions'.

The six and seven-year-olds, wearing vast shorts and brightly clashing shirts, waited impatiently for their turn to use the indoor football pitch.

A gang of interloping big boys, raucously practising their long-range shooting, were exceeding their allotted time in the municipal sports centre.

Although the little boys did their best to look unimpressed, they knew perfectly well who these noisy, skilful strangers from the next town were. They even demanded a few autographs as the older players reluctantly left for the changing rooms.

Why reluctantly? The big boys had obviously taken great joy in training together, but they also grumbled that the municipal showers would probably be cold again.

The "big boys" were the first-team squad of the French First Division Club Sportif Sedan-Ardennes. They had been forced to abandon their waterlogged training ground and come the 20 miles to Charleville-Méziÿres to train for the most important match of their unconventional football careers.

On Sunday night, CSSA, better known as Sedan, who are second in the French First Division, will play at home against Bordeaux, the leading team. At stake will be the title of "Autumn Champions" of French football: the unofficial honour given to the team which tops the First Division at the mid-way point.

CSSA were in the semi-professional National league until four years ago. They come from a struggling industrial town in the Ardennes in the far North-East of France with a population of 22,000 and falling. Their nick-name is the "Sangliers" (wild boars), which is appropriate since these animals probably outnumber human beings in this beautiful, but strangely forgotten, part of France.

The Sedan team is composed partly of promising youngsters; and partly of French and foreign players in the late 20s and 30s, who have bounced for years around the lower French leagues or thereserve teams of big clubs. Two or three of them spent time on the unemployment register before being given a second chance here in the French far north.

One of these players - Olivier Quint, 28 - was twice left on the dole when his previous, lower division clubs, first Rouen and then Epernay, went bankrupt in 1995 and 1996. His performances as a withdrawn striker for Sedan in the last three years have brought him to the edge of the France squad and - it is rumoured here - on to the target list of Gérard Houllier and Liverpool FC.

"I admit that I almost gave up football," said Quint, who looks like a slighter version of Emmanuel Petit, complete with pony-tail. "No one wanted me after the second bankruptcy. Only Sedan would give me a try." The club moved into a smart, three-quarters built £10m stadium four home matches ago. When finished, the stadium's capacity will exceed the town's 22,000 population, but Sedan have 9,000 season-ticket holders and fans from across northern France and over the frontier in Belgium.

For the time being, the club's training facilities consist of the pitch in the tumble-down, rusting, but much-loved, old stadium next door (hence the need to borrow the gym in the neighbouring town when it rains too hard).

The president, a self-made local businessman, Pascal Urano, promises a proper new training centre in the grounds of a château next year.

It is a wonderful story, but not an entirely new one. Sedan is the latest of a line of small town clubs to turn the world of French professional football on its head.

Auxerre, from a tiny, football-hating town in Burgundy, won the league and cup double in 1995-6. Lens, a small, football-mad, mining town in the Pas de Calais, won the championship in 1998. Gueugnon, from the Second Division, little more than a Burgundian village club, won the League Cup last year.

Calais, from the amateur and reserve league, reached the French cup final in May, gallantly losing to a penalty in the last minute.

Now Sedan, with an annual budget of £13m, are leading such big-city or big-money clubs as Paris St-Germain (£50m), Lyon (£40m), Monaco (£37m) and the hopelessly underachieving Marseilles (£28m).

None of these budgets are enormous by European standards, which partly explains why the big clubs do not dominate in France, as they do in England or Italy. The absence abroad of the almost entire France squad - and over 60 French professional footballers in all - further levels the playing field.

But can these facts alone explain the upside-down world of French football? The French press and some top French players (including Petit) regard the serial success of small clubs as a sign of weakness in the domestic game of the world and European champions.

The Sedan coach, Alex Dupont sees it, on the contrary, as a sign of the enormous depth of footballing - and coaching - talent which now exists in France.

Dupont, who looks like a Gallic version of Roy of the Rovers in his managerial years, said: "Skilful and well-coached players are now pouring out of the football academies of the big French clubs in numbers which the big clubs themselves can't cope with. Some people say that shows the academies are failing. I think it shows how much they are succeeding." In Britain, we have generally been used to small clubs acting, willingly or not, as nurseries for the big teams. In France, the flow has been reversed. Under the rules of the French league, all First Division clubs are supposed to have training centres for young players (Sedan, as a newly promoted club, are an exception).

If they fail to make the first team squad at the big-city clubs (which often try to buy instant success by bringing in not-quite-first-grade foreigners) the young players drift into the lower divisions.

The Sedan squad, built by the previous coach, Patrick Remy, was mostly put together three or four years ago by picking up bargains from big clubs and resurrecting the careers of players who had tumbled down the ladder.

Apart from Quint, the most successful examples are the captain, Luis Satorra, 31, (formerly of Montpellier reserves) and his fellow-centre back, Eduardo Oliveira, 29, a Brazilian who came to France at 19 but floundered until he came to Sedan. The pair were recently named by the France Under-21 coach, Raymond Domenech, as the best centre-back pairing in Europe.

Remy, the coach who assembled the team, fell out with Urano at the end of last season over money and training facilities, among other things, and is now coaching in Belgium. Alex Dupont, who coached Gueugnon to their League Cup victory, was brought in to replace him. He was almost poached this week by Marseilles, but was persuaded to stay in Sedan.

"What you have here - and you can see it in training - is an extraordinary spirit, among a group of young men who are friends, as well as team-mates," Dupont said. "That's partly because they've been together for several years but it's partly because they have, many of them, known failure.

"They have known rejection, even the dole. They have a hunger to prove themselves, to revenge themselves. They also have real talent. The talent will not go away. The hard thing will be to preserve the spirit, the hunger for success, right until the end of the season."

Dupont's official target is to match last season's eighth position. Given the indifferent form of the big-city clubs (Bordeaux apart), French football commentators see no reason why Sedan should not finish in the top four positions which would put them in next season's Champions' League or Uefa cup. After the first half of the season, anything less would be a cold shower.