Vasseur the villain of the fairytale

The French romance which captivated the football world last year has been replaced by recrimination
Click to follow

"He's a traitor," thundered the young Frenchman drinking in the cosy bar just off the Place d'Armes. "It's a betrayal for the town, it's a betrayal for the club."

"He's a traitor," thundered the young Frenchman drinking in the cosy bar just off the Place d'Armes. "It's a betrayal for the town, it's a betrayal for the club."

It's a nippy but clear-skied night in Calais. Lines of homegoing traffic in what constitutes the local rush hour are plaiting themselves into hooting tangles up and down Rue Royale. In the background a giant ferry edges into the harbour like a moving mountain with Sea France stamped on its side. Shop windows display Calais Racing Union Football Club pennants and the scarves now recognisable to the whole of France, striped in the colours of le sang et l'or and printed Allez Calais.

The walls of bars and cafés all over town are decked with the familiar posters of the team who passed into legend one summer day last year when they met and nearly matched Nantes at the Stade de France in the French Cup final.

This should be a week of peak anticipation for CRUFC - on Saturday they enter the fray again, hoping to prove that miracles not only happen round here, but happen more than once. In a town with 16 per cent unemployment, last season's cup run was the biggest and best thing to happen in years, a scarcely credible feat that saw the equivalent of a Conference side taking on and beating the cream of French professional football.

The players live and work in the town, in the cash-and-carries, at the leisure centre, in the ferry booking office, so everyone is on first-name terms with the team: Cedric the goalie, Reginald the captain, Mickey the goalscorer, Manu the playmaker... No, not Manu.

When Calais run out on to the pitch this Saturday they will be without Emmanuel Vasseur, the creative left-footed midfielder who was arguably their star player. Two weeks ago, Manu broke some shocking news. He has signed for Leyton Orient.

Manu was always, allegedly, a player who tested the club's faith in him. They sacked him twice for his habit of putting fishing, boules and beer before training, and for failing to commit at any of the numerous jobs the club found for him to subsidise his football.

Twice he was reinstated by the club's general manager, Claude Thiriot, who believed that despite everything Manu had the makings of a greatplayer. Manu's contribution last season bore that out. But this is a development that the club could do without at any time, let alone on the eve of the opening round of a new cup campaign.

It has been especially important for the squad to be kept together because they are pitching for promotion to the Third Division, having led the table virtually from the start of the season.

Exempt this season from having to take part in the early rounds of the cup, Calais are drawn to play Sedan, at the top of the French First Division. Reginald Becque, who now has the job of stoking the spirits of a suddenly bereft team whose outstanding qualities have always been togetherness and collective joie de vivre, is diplomatic: "It's a good opportunity for him to go professional and I hope he will be happy. There is good team spirit in the squad and we all wish him well."

Nevertheless, the timing of Manu's defection has caused bitterness, largely because before Christmas he had indicated his ongoing commitment to Calais. Orient made an approach two months ago, but nothing seemed to come of it and it was only one of several enquiries made about several players by bigger clubs such as Strasbourg, Cannes and even Norwich.

"Ten days before Christmas Manu was in my dad's office signing a new contract," says Nico Thiriot, son of the general manager, Claude. "My dad look him eyes to eyes, ask him if everything was all right. He promised he was going to stay with the club till the end of the season, like Cedric Schille and Mickey Gerard.

"These are highly demanded players, but they gave their word that they were going to stay - their promise. It's a bit unfair when you know that you can steal a player from anamateur club just by putting a big carrot under his nose, and to act this way when you are less than two weeks away from a cup tie against the top club in France, it's like everyone feels stitched up - team-mates, club, Calaisiens, all the French fans who are rooting for Calais, and the five million people who are going to be watching the game on television and expecting another miracle. Nothing illegal has been done, but Manu has broken a moral contract."

Can Calais do it again despite all the traumas? Though it is nominally a home tie for them, the game against Sedan will not be taking place on their own turf, the 80-year-old Stade Julien Denis, which only needs a crowd of 5,000 to burst its seams.

An ideal substitute would have been the stadium at Lens, which they used for their triumphant semi-final last year, but Lens have a home game, so they are hitting the road for Amiens.

In the bars and cafés last week, there was fighting talk from the locals. "We need to show some heart and balls," said one. "We don't want to show we're sunk at the bottom of the harbour. We are not Maradonas technically, but we are so passionate about what we are doing and we hope that will carry us through."

In fact, with 250 coachloads of locals heading down the motorway to Amiens on Saturday, it's safe to say the whole of Calais will be there - except for Manu, of course.