"The magic of the cup" is a refrain often used in a number of countries to describe an event of giant killing or a shock result in a domestic cup competition. But in no country is it more apt to use this phrase than France.
The Coupe de France—the French version of the FA Cup, DFB Pokal and a host of other domestic competitions around Europe—offers the smallest amateur outfits an annual opportunity to mix it up with Ligue 1’s big boys to claim a slice of glory.
Often these sides’ stories come crashing to a shuddering halt early on, or some retain a bit of pride and go out fighting. However, more often in France than anywhere else, the underdog has his day.
Semi-professional outfit US Quevilly have proved over the last few seasons that attitude and positive thinking still counts for so much in football. The Championnat National (third tier) side have reached the last four twice in the past three years, and last year they reached the final, bravely competing with Lyon and only narrowly losing 1-0.
It wasn’t luck that led Quevilly to the final, it was desire and hunger. In the Coupe de France more than almost any other domestic cup match in Europe, the lower-league sides always stand a chance, no matter how small.
That is likely in part due to the amount of top-flight sides that don’t take the competition as seriously as they should. A string of Ligue 1 sides fall to lower-league opposition each year by fielding weakened teams with one eye on the resumption of the domestic season which traditionally recommences a week later.
Another factor, though, is how unheralded the competition is, even in its own country. This is likely to be one of few articles that you can find on this year’s competition in English, but few exist even in French. The competition is generally not taken seriously until the latter stages, when the majority of the smaller sides have been eliminated.
This attitude is perhaps born out of the fact that the clubs feel the same way.
The semi-professional and amateur outfits wait for this annual opportunity to upstage the big boys and often, the minnows will prevail through sheer grit and determination. In the last 16 years, seven teams from outside of France’s top-flight have contested a final. Six ended in defeat, but in 2009 Ligue 2’s Guingamp heroically beat Rennes to lift the trophy and secure an unlikely berth in the Europa League, proving that the magic of the cup well and truly exists.
This season looks like it will be no exception.
Last year Quevilly weren’t the only side making headlines; tiny Gazelec Ajaccio (Ligue 1 side Ajaccio’s little brother) of Championnat National went on a famous run that was only stopped in the latter stages by Lyon when an all-amateur tie looked a possibility. Quveilly seem to have perfected a formula that has seen them enjoy more success than most of late, but more and more teams are now starting to take the competition seriously.
The final has been staged at Stade de France every year since 1998 and in the latter stages the smaller sides are granted dispensation to move the games to bigger, nearby venues in an effort to maximise a vital stream of revenue for some clubs.
French football finances are in murky waters below the top-flight, but the Coupe de France offers teams the opportunity to fight for their future in some cases.
The French are often guilty of not having enough faith and confidence in their own product and cast envious glances across the Channel at the English FA Cup. What they don’t realise is that their own domestic trophy has as much potential, if not more, for giant killing. Only twice in the last 10 years have teams from outside the top tier contested the FA Cup Final (Millwall and Cardiff), and teams from lower down rarely get a chance to enjoy a showpiece meeting.
There could be at least one early big-name exit after Paris Saint-Germain boss Carlo Ancelotti elected to leave a host of star players in Paris for his side’s trip to Arras to take on provincial outfit Arras Football.
Similar to last year’s visit to Locmine in the Italian’s first match in charge, PSG have drawn small opposition. This time though, Ancelotti has opted to field a host of fringe players. Surely the capital club’s second-string side will have enough to get past Arras though?
You’d like to think so, but the beauty of the Coupe de France is that you never know.
For those who love an underdog story, the Coupe de France is a trophy worth following. Once like the FA Cup and dominated by the top sides, it is just not that easy in France anymore and guaranteed that this year, like last, you will have a number of heroic stories emerging regarding a lesser team’s exploits.
The magic of the cup is well and truly alive in France, it is just a pity that more people don’t sit up and take notice of it.