It’s a story somewhat reminiscent of Wimbledon Football Club in England. The club from a town better known for a game with racquets, who came from humble non-league beginnings to compete at the highest level of English football. Yes, they fell all the way back down again, but at least they proved that a dream can be achieved. Now, in France, a small Pyrenean village football club – population approximately 650 – are threatening to build a story of their own. That is, however, if the authorities allow them to do so.
Luzenac were the very epitome of a small village football club pottering away in the French regional leagues. Then, five years ago they managed to reach the giddy heights of Ligue 3 of the Championnet de France. It was always perceived to be a fleeting visit before tumbling back to sleepy anonymity.
For two seasons, they clung on to their illustrious status but it was an uneven battle and relegation was surely merely being postponed, rather than avoided. The inevitable financial problems were growing and the club could even have sunk. Then, as is often the case in stories like this, a shining knight appeared in the guise of Toulouse businessman Jérôme Ducros. He resolved the financial issues, and set club on a solid base. That, however, was merely the start.
Last season he set a £2million budget for the club and appointed former France and Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, native of a nearby village to be the club’s managing director. This was no vanity call of Ducros however. Whilst some successful businessmen seem to forget all of the lessons the commercial world has taught them when they buy into the beautiful game, Ducros’s cloth was cut from an altogether different stripe.
Barthez was astute in spending his employer’s investment, and purchased the players necessary to turn around the cub’s fortunes. Working alongside Barthez, manager Christophe Pelissier produced a team that not only survived in Ligue 3 but actually prospered and won promotion to Ligue 2, finishing the season as the league’s top goal scorers. “We had planned to gain promotion in three years so we are well ahead of schedule!” The delighted Ducros exulted at the time. Long-serving defender Jérôme Hergault added to the feeling of disbelief. “When I came here we were struggling to stay up in CFA [fourth tier], now to be going up to Ligue 2 is hard to believe. People often just saw us as mere peasants playing football – this will make a lot of people shut up.”
Being ahead of the curve is good in one way of course, but it does have its drawbacks. Any planned development of the club’s tiny Stade Paul Fédou ground had not kept pace with the progress on the pitch, and a sole stand with a stadium accommodating a capacity of only 400 was never going to be sufficient. Ducros arranged however for the club to play its home games in Toulouse, 80 miles away. Hardly ideal, but it would serve well as a temporary measure. Ducros’s backing had set the club on an upward trend and made them financially secure. “We are not even one euro in debt,“ said Barthez. Everything seemed set, but unfortunately, this is where the Big Bad Wolf enters this particular fairy-tale.
All promotions within the Championnet have to be approved by the Direction Nationale de Contrôle et de Gestion (DNCG). The organisation was set up by the French Football Federation in 1984 to ensure financial probity in clubs and ensure that they were run and operated on a sound basis. It’s an increasingly widespread feeling however that the transparency the DNCG demand of clubs, may not be reflected in their own operations. An old boys’ club is always prone to protect the status quo. Luzenac were denied promotion, and told they would have to compete in Ligue 3 again. The story of the plucky little upstart club had seemed to run into the buffers.
It was not the first time that the DNCG had made such a decision. Both Nice and Lens had suffered at the hands of the organisation previously, but Luzenec and Ducros will have taken solace from then fact that both of these decisions had been overturned on court appeal. There was however another history lesson that the tiny Pyrenean club would also have been aware of. A decade ago, AS Valence, another relatively small club were repeatedly denied promotion to Ligue 2 and soon afterwards the club folded. Was a similar fate awaiting Luzenec?
Unsurprisingly, Ducros was not prepared to accept the decision without a fight. The club insisted they had a balanced budget for the coming season, and DNCG’s assertion that the club’s stadium was an issue had all the hallmarks of a flag of convenience given the agreement to play in Toulouse on a temporary basis.
“I want to stress how discourteous the authorities have been,” Ducros asserted. “I didn’t even get a mail informing me about the decision, I had to hear about it in the media and on the internet … it is shameful to treat us like this. They didn’t even say a single word to Fabien Barthez during the appeal.
“Imagine behaving like that just 24 hours before France play in the quarter-final of the World Cup! I’ll say it again: shame on the FFF! We answered every question and presented fully audited accounts. I’m going to fight to bring this system down, they are ruining the hopes of an entire district!”
What kind of fairy-tale would this be however if there wasn’t a happy ending? Enter the Fairy godmother in the form of the Toulouse Administrative Court. After having the issue referred to them by Ducros, they ruled on favour of Luzenac and the club representing a population of 650 will take their rightful place in Ligue 2 next season alongside the likes of Auxerre, Troyes and Clermont – managed by Corrine Diacre, but that’s a whole other story.
Now here’s the inevitable moral summing up. Football is nothing it denies romance. The chance to dream and strive for glory is what produces every cup upset, every time the big team is downed and every time a new club is crowned as Champions of whatever league. It was difficult to find an official version of the DNCG’s report to fully understand their motives in seeking to deny in a committee room what Luzenac achieved on the pitch. Suffice to say, I guess, that I don’t believe there’s many football fans of any particular club that would not applaud the decision to overturn the ruling. Allez Luzenac! I look forward to seeing you play in the Parc de Princes against PSG next season.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).