With the Champions League returning after the international football break, Real Madrid are looking to build on their positive start to the group stages. Real have won their first two games and will hope to come out of their upcoming clashes with AC Milan unscathed and with sights firmly set on finishing in top spot.
There is genuine belief in Madrid that the post World Cup acquisitions of Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, teamed with the coronation of imperious manager Jose Mourinho, will lead to a genuine challenge for the top prize in European football. However, while Real go in search of European Cup number 10, the team they played in the first ever final have slightly lower expectations–in the French Second Division.
Last Friday, Stade de Reims played against 5th placed Chateauroux as they attempted to pull themselves out of the relegation zone. Having won promotion last year the club is hoping to complete its climb back to the peak of French football. The team lost 2-0, however, and remain in the sticky stuff near the foot of the table. As many of the 200 Reims supporters steeled themselves for a 320 kilometre bus ride home, they were happy to escape into the past and reminisce about the club’s golden period of the 1950s and 60s. For a club that played in front of 40,000 fans in that 1956 Parisian final against Real Madrid, with legendary players such as Raymond Kopa and Michel Hidalgo, it is an easy routine to fall back on.
Stade de Reims were the outstanding French team of the 1950s. From 1949 to 1962, the team from the northeast region of France won six league titles, two French cups, and a Latin Cup–the precursor to the European Cup. At the 1958 World Cup the French team, featuring six Reims player including captain Robert Jonquet, finished in 3rd place. They came unstuck against eventual winners Brazil in the semi-final, a game notable for the fact that captain Jonquet competed for 65 minutes of the game with a broken leg. The main star of the competition was another Reims player, Just Fontaine, who struck 13 goals. The feat remains a World Cup record to this day.
At the end of the 1990-1991 season, the club finished 6th in Ligue 1 and won the League Cup. But the club was €7.5 million in debt and were demoted to third division by the DNCG (the national body that controls the finances of all French clubs). Liquidation in 1992 forced the club to wind up and reform in the French equivalent of the sixth division. A bleak decade ensued. A 2001 adventure to the quarter final of the French Cup briefly lifted spirits and the club settled into second division life until relegation at the end of last season doused ambitions to return to the top.
Robert Pires was born and raised in Reims and spent three years with his hometown club before moving on to success at Marseille and Arsenal. “There is a big passion for football there,” he says, “Everybody growing up knows the history; they had so many great players. They were the first French team, along with St. Etienne, to gain such fame and become known in Europe. It remains the most important part of life for many people living there.”
Pires, now a free agent after a spell with La Liga side Villarreal, says, “My youth team days at Reims were a wonderful experience and I feel very lucky to have been given this chance to learn about the game with them and at Metz. I always keep an eye out for their results. They had a good cup run a few years ago that raised some interest and money. However, today the club does not have much of a budget. It was sad to see such a successful team fade.”
One man who would agree with that statement is 71-year-old Daniel Wargnier, who attended the 1956 final in Paris as a teenager. Daniel (president of the official Stade de Reims supporters group) remembers the occasion as a time when all of France got behind Reims. “There was a real craze for the Stade de Reims team back then. A lot of people come from all over the country to see the club play. There were a lot of supporters of Reims who came all the way from Paris to see every Stade de Reims match. Every car and train was full of supporters travelling to the final in June 1956.”
Daniel recalls Fontaine and the Argentinean Carlos Bianchi as two of the finest players to represent the club. However his eyes light up when he speaks about the attacking midfield skills of Kopa. Born Raymond Kopaszewski in 1931, he played 402 games for the French side and scored 84 goals. Kopa was a driving force for Reims against Real Madrid in the first European Cup final as they took a 3-2 lead after 62 minutes. Goals from Marquitos and Hector Rial dashed any hopes Stade de Reims had of securing their place in history but the paths of both clubs were yet to diverge.
Kopa signed for Real Madrid the next season and while he went on to claim two European Cup medals as the Spanish side beat Fiorentina and Milan, his former team remained dominant in France. In 1959 the teams clashed in a European Cup final again. Daniel made the journey with thousands of Stade de Reims fans to Stuttgart for the game but the growing gulf in class was apparent. An early strike from Enrique Mateos left Reims chasing the game and living of scraps of possession. An Alfredo de Stefano goal in the second half killed off the game. Real Madrid had their fourth European Cup. Raymond Kopa collected three cup winners’ medals in three seasons and returned to Reims. He would not come as close again.
The team won its last Ligue 1 title in 1962 and finished runners-up the following season. A win in the French equivalent of the community shield (Trophees des Champions) came in 1966 but at that stage the majority of the European Cup finalists had moved on or retired. Former club president Christophe Chenut explained that the club did not build on its earlier success as there was no significant prize money or television revenue in the earlier years of Europe’s top competition. The last players of note to wear a Reims jersey in the top flight were Carlos Bianchi, top goalscorer for three different seasons in the 1970s, and George Lech.
Reims’ chief executive, Olivier Letang arrived at the club in 1997 as a player. “I came from Mains, who were in the second division”, he says. “As my wife was from Reims, I accepted the club's offer. I remained as a player until 2004 when the club won the National (third division) and went back up to the second division.” During the final seasons of his playing career, Olivier was an administrative director and financial officer at the club. After obtaining his Master of Business Administration degree, in 2006, he took over as CEO.
He explains that issues such as mismanagement of funds and paying too much in transfers and salaries to players rejoining the club in the late 1980s and early 90s led to the liquidation. He describes the strange sensation of playing in the club’s 11,000 seat Stade Auguste Delaune stadium in the lower echelons of French football but believes the current club officials have formed a solid business structure; strong enough to cope with a 70 per cent drop in revenue from its days in the top flight. Indeed, the club opened the 21,000 seat Stade Auguste Delaune II in 2008.
Olivier says, “This season we have an average attendance of around 8,000 fans. In the 2008-2009 season, although we finished bottom of the league, our average attendance was around 11,800.” Olivier played with Stade de Reims during the quarter-final run in 2001 French Cup, describing it as ‘a great experience for the club’. He says, “It was the first time since the liquidation in 1992 that the club has reached such a high level. However, it remains one of my most difficult experiences as a player as we were so close to playing in front of 80,000 fans at the Stade de France (before losing to Amiens).”
The Briest family has followed Reims matches up and down the divisions. 50 year old Bernard Briest runs the official supporters group with Aurelien and Kevin Briest, twenty-something followers who give up their spare time to organise away-days, trips and presentations. The Briests may share a family connection but they truly bond over the football club and combine their storytelling and gesticulating skills to paint a picture of a side with past and future glories to play for.
Kevin, who works as an accountant, has an intricate knowledge of all things Reims. Asked about successful players who have moved on from the club, he mentions Robert Pires but then lists off seven former youth team members who are now in Ligue 1, two players who are now at clubs in the English Championship and a dozen others who ply their trade in leagues ranging from Sweden to Qatar.
Aurelien is optimistic about Stade de Reims prospects of reaching League 1 (the top division). “At the moment, the best player is our striker Cedric Fauré, who has the playing ability of a top division player but has remained loyal to the club in the hopes of helping them gain promotion,” he says. “We have a midfielder, Vincent Gragnic, who joined Reims in 2008 after playing in the top division, and Champions League, with Marseille. So at the moment we have two players who have the skill to be at higher clubs but the overall squad is of a good quality and certainly good enough for the second division.”
“Our future plans can be broken into two steps”, Olivier explained. “The first was to get promoted into the second division. Then, we will begin to work on a project to get the club back into the first division. Reims is the 12th biggest city in France, with a population of over 200,000 and a club with a rich history and high expectations. It is the responsibility of the management and the players to create a strong future for the club.”
The team retains strong links with Real Madrid and played against the Spanish giants just before the 2006 World Cup. Olivier says, “When we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first European Cup final we were joined by several former Madrid players such as Francisco Gento, who won the cup six times, and Emilio Butragueno. It was a great gesture and sign of support.”
This Friday, Stade de Reims will play AC Ajaccio and could climb as high as 13th if results are in their favour. Daniel Wargnier will travel with the supporters group to the game in the hopes of seeing his team take another small step back to the days when it was ‘the beacon of French football’. He says, “I watch the Champions League and will watch Real’s game against AC Milan too. Football is a game of chance but it also offers the chance to dream.”