50-50 ball: ‘National’ pride
When is a third division not a third division? When it’s called something else, of course – do keep up, please. Over the last few years, the geniuses in certain European leagues’ marketing departments have generally come to the conclusion that reminding fans and sponsors that the product they are paying for is a full two tiers below their country’s elite level is a no-go, commercially speaking. And so in England we get ‘League 1’, while in Scotland, Portugal and Turkey it’s the ‘Second Division’/’Segunda Divisão’/’TFF 2. Lig’, and in France the third level is referred to as ‘National’.
The Championnat de France National, to give it its full title, is the last saloon as far as amateurs are concerned; if your team gains promotion to Ligue 2, you have to turn pro. The division currently contains a mix of fully professional, semi-professional and amateur clubs. But there was nothing amateur about the performances of its two remaining representatives in the Coupe de France this week.
With remarkable victories over the mighty Marseille and high-flying Montpellier respectively, US Quevilly and Gazélec Ajaccio qualified for the semi-finals of France’s national cup competition, the first time two sides from the third tier had achieved such a feat since the dawn of the professional era in 1932.
Amazingly, this is Quevilly’s second appearance in the last four in two seasons, having narrowly lost out to PSG in 2010. Hailing from a village in Normandy of 22,000 hardy souls and playing in a stadium that holds just 2,500, their accomplishment is all the more impressive given their poor league form this year, which has had fans reaching for the Calvados at the thought of playing in the CFA (fourth division) next term.
Corsican outfit Gazélec, who cannot even claim to be biggest team in the town they represent (that honour belongs to top-flight club AC Ajaccio), also did their division proud, picking up their second Ligue 1 scalp of this year’s competition. Having had the odd shafting at the hands of the authorities over the years, their moment in the sun is proof that in football, you can be sure of two things: the ball is round, and what goes around, comes around.
While the English media never stops slavering about the ‘romance of the cup’, the FA’s equivalent contest has not seen anywhere near as many shocks, upsets and surprises as La Coupe de France in recent years. Only three third-tier clubs have gatecrashed the FA Cup’s final quartet in the last 30 years – Plymouth in 1984, Chesterfield in 1997 and Wycombe in 2001 – and none have ever advanced to the final. During that same time period, there were six finalists in France from outwith the top division, including fourth-tier Calais, whose adventurous amateurs were the talk of Europe for a couple of crazy weeks in 2000, and second division Guingamp, who actually won the flipping thing in 2009.
Other countries have had lowly clubs go on fleeting, giant-killing runs in their domestic cup competition, but it is a much rarer occurrence; this year, Mirandés became just the second third-tier outfit to reach the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey in Spain, while now-defunct Gretna became the first side from the third division of Scottish football to reach the country’s national cup final in 2006, where they narrowly lost to a strong Hearts team on penalties.
When attempting to explain why the French Cup produces as many upsets as it does, observers point to the fact that there are no replays or two-legged matches involved – the one-off games are decided on the night, be it in 90 or 120 minutes, or via penalty kicks. Even more crucial, they say, is the tournament rule that forces higher-ranked clubs to play away from home if they are drawn against opposition two levels or more below them.
Both third-level sides found out their semi-final opponents during the week, as the draw paired Gazélec with Lyon, and Quevilly with Rennes. Because of the aforementioned rule, the Ligue 1 teams now face tricky trips into deepest darkest Normandy and Corsica. If either underdog pulls off a win and reaches the Stade de France, it’s likely that there will no further need to jog the memory of fans (or sponsors) as to which division their heroes play in; ‘National’ will become a badge of pride.