The Lament of Stade de Reims – So nearly the first champions of Europe.

When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been.

Under the easily forgettable nom de guerre of Société Sportive du Parc Pommery, Stade de Reims were founded in 1910 by Marie Charles Jean Melchior, Marquis de Polignac and head of the Champagne Pommery a Champagne house in the city. The club’s appellation contrôlée was hardly destined to acquire vintage acclaim, however. Some 20 years later – although roughly equating to vingt âge – the name was changed to Stade de Reims in June 1931.

At this time, the club remained an amateur organisation, and although football in France took on an official professional guise the following year, Stade de Reims kept itself apart from the new format for a further few years. After winning the Championnat de France – the championship for amateur clubs – in 1935 however, it bowed to the inevitable and abandoned its amateur ethos, launching into the professional arena.

At the time, the club was managed by Billy Aitken, a Scotsman who had taken over at the helm from Englishman David Harrison in 1934. Success in his first season with the club built on the reputation of the forward-thinking Aitken. Following a fairly itinerant playing career in Britain, the Scot had struck out across Europe often adopting a player-manager role for a number of continental clubs, including Juventus, who he guided to third place in the league. As the accepted ‘home of the game’, having a British manager was seen to be almost a necessity for any aspiring top club in the continent, but it was a passing phase. When Aitken left the club in 1936, he would be its second and final British manager.

The war years largely brought a hiatus to football in the country, but in the first campaign following the cessation of hostilities, Stade de Reims reached the top tier of the French league structure. It was time for the club to launch into a period of success. Robert Jonquet, considered by many to be one of the finest centre-halves of the era was promoted from the club’s youth team after being signed from SS Voltaire de Paris three years earlier. He would remain at the club until 1960 and was a key member of the club’s most successful teams. He would also play 58 times for the French national team. Roger Marche was also brought into the club’s defence a few years later. Signing from Olympique de Charleville, alongside Jonquet, Marche would provide the stiffest of spines to the Reims backline. He too would feature extensively for France, eventually breaking the record for the number of international caps for Les Bleus. His total of 63, set in 1959, would stand until surpassed by Marius Trésor two dozen years later.

Under manager Henri Roessler, the club won their first French title in 1948-49 season, a single point clear of runners-up Lille. The club from near the Belgian border would perhaps consider themselves somewhat unfortunate not to take the title. Their goal difference of 62 comfortably surpassed that of Roessler’s team, and scoring more than a century of goals in a 34-game programme is remarkable. It was however the ability of Les Rouge et Blanc to win games, even if perhaps in somewhat less flamboyantly fashion than Lilles, that took them over the line. It was a characteristic that may have deserted them in the hour of their greatest need however.

In defence, Marche and Jonquet had now also been joined by Armand Penverne, another graduate of the club’s youth system. The team was set for more success and the following term, as well as securing the pre-season Trophée des Champions – the French equivalent of the Charity Shield – overcoming Coupe de France winners Racing Club, they also defeated the same club to take the cup from them on 14 May 1950.

Two goals in the last ten minutes settled the cup final. The first was scored on 81 minutes by French starlet Francis Méano, mere days short of his nineteenth birthday. Tragically, Méano would never have the opportunity to unveil his full potential. He died in a car accident just over two year later, at the tender age of just 22. The second goal two minutes later was added by André Petitfils. The midfielder, at the other end of the age range from the tyro Méano, was now over 30 years of age and the following season would be his last with the club, before joining FC Metz. It’s poignant to reflect that neither of the two goal scorers on the day that Stade de Reims won their first Coupe de France would be with the club two years later, although for entirely contrasting reasons.

At the end of the 1949-50 season, Roessler left the club to join Marseille and was replaced by the man who would build on the foundations created, before guiding the club to new heights, and oh-so-close to legendary status. A local from the city, Albert Batteux had been a Les Rouge et Blanc player since 1937, and contributing to both the league success in 1948-49, and the cup triumph the following term. In the following 13 or so seasons at the helm of the club, he would add a further five league titles, another Coupe de France triumph and earn the Stade de Reims a place at the top of table of European football clubs. Also doubling as manager of the national team, between 1955 and 1962, under his care Les Bleus would take third place in the 1958 World Cup and fourth in 1960 European Championships. After leaving Stade de Reims, he would guide Saint-Étienne to three league titles and two Coupe de France successes, making him the most accomplished manager in the history of French domestic football. The previous two seasons had shown that Stade de Reims had a team capable of great things. They now also had a manager who would ensure that potential was delivered on.

With the club now being seen as a growing power in France, they also began to attract even more quality players. The driving midfielder, Raymond Kopa joined from Angers in 1951 and Raoul Giraudo left the youth team at Aix to become part of the growing throng. Batteux’s strategy would take a little time to become ingrained in his players, but a couple of seasons after the appointment, things were well set.

A second league title was secured at the end of the 1952-53 season. After finishing fifth and then fourth in the previous two terms – without really threatening to league winners – the club triumphed in some style. Topping the table by a clear four points from runners-up FC Sochaux-Montbeliard, Batteux’s team won more games than any other team in the league, scored more goals, and conceded less. Additionally, as an amuse bouche for what would follow a couple of years later, Stade de Reims entered the Latin Cup as champions of France. Clubs from the country had finished as runners-up over the previous three years, with Bordeaux, Lille and then Nice losing in the final. Batteux’s team would redeem the reputation of French football though when they secured the trophy in the summer of 1953, defeating AC Milan in the final.

In French cuisine, the amuse bouche is often followed by the hors d’oeuvre, before the main courses begin. The Latin Cup was not held the following year but, at the end of the 1954-55 season, with Les Rouge et Blanc again France’s top team, they would reach the final of the tournament once more. As an unwelcome herald of the shape of things to come, their conquerors were Real Madrid. In 1954, Marche left to join Racing Club, and thus missed the challenge that would define the fates of both French and Spanish clubs as they played in the inaugural European Cup competition of 1955-56.

The new season began with early promise for the club, when they again triumphed in the Trophée des Champions with a thumping 7-2 victory over Lille, played at the Stade Vélodrome, Marseille. It set an optimistic tone for the challenges ahead, especially with the new European Cup tournament making its bow. This nascent episode of what has grown into the European football’s premier cash-stuffed cub jamboree was much less extravagant in its first year of life. Indeed, the idea of each competing club being the champions of their domestic league was still to be set into stone. Instead, the invitations were distributed via the largesse of the French football magazine L’Equipe, with the criterion being that each competing club should be of the required prestige and be regarded as representative of the finer elements of football in each country.

With typical insular arrogance, The FA strongly leaned on English champions Chelsea to opt out of the competition with the governing body insisting that nothing should be allowed to detract from the importance of the domestic league and cup programmes. In their stead, Polish club Gwardia Warszawa were invited. Chelsea were not alone in rejecting an invitation. The fabled Hungarian club side Honvéd, with a galaxy of stars from the Magical Magyars team, also demurred, as did BK Copenhagen and of Denmark and the Dutch club Holland Sport.

Hibernian had been invited as Scottish representatives, not merely because of their success on the field, but as a forward looking club who had sought involvement in European, and indeed global, tours and competitions plus, having had the floodlights in place in Easter Road that had been inaugurated in 1954, all of the boxes were ticked for the aficionados of the football magazine. The choice was important for Stade de Reims, as the Edinburgh club would face the Les Rouge et Blanc in the final four of the competition. There was another twist to the tournament. Instead of a draw to decide the clubs who would face each other in the first round, the organisers fixed the ties. Offering advantage to favoured clubs due to financial or reasons of prestige, is nothing new in European football.

The first-ever European Cup tie, took place on 4 September 1955 at Lisbon’s Estádio Nacional, when Sporting Clube de Portugal played out a goal fest of a 3-3 draw with FK Partizan of Yugoslavia. If the clubs combined to give the competition a flying start, individually, neither would prosper greatly. A five-goal second leg mauling in Belgrade ended the aspirations of the Portuguese and, in the quarter finals, the club from Belgrade would fall to Real Madrid, as a three-goal home victory fell just short of overturning a 4-0 defeat in the Spanish capital.

Stade de Reims were selected to play against the Danes of AGF Aarhus, who had filled the spot vacated by BK Copenhagen. Batteux’s team would begin their European campaign on 21 September, in front of some 18,000 fans at the Idrætsparken, Copenhagen. Just seven minutes into the contest, forward Léon Glovacki would first reveal a penchant for scoring opening, often early, goals in the cup run when he netted to give the visitors the lead. A second strike, by the same player, with 18 minutes left to play, meant a comfortable two goal cushion to take back to France.

Although he failed to find the net himself, Kopa was already displaying the flair and attacking threat that would make him one of the outstanding players for Les Rouge et Blanc, as his intelligent forward paly probed the opposition defences. For the succeeding three tournaments, Kopa would be part of the successful team that lifted the trophy. Unlike in the 1956 tournament however, his shirt would not be Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims, but Los Blancos of Real Madrid. All of that was part of a then unknown future that would hold out a glimpse of the most glittering of prizes for the French club, before snatching it cruelly away.

Back in Reims, the club’s Stade Auguste Delaune was hardly a huge seething cauldron for the second leg, with less than 6,000 fans attending. Another Glovacki opening goal, plus one from René Bliard had, to all intents and purposes, put the tie beyond doubt before a couple of late Danish goals offered the visitors the most insignificant of fig leaves to cover their emphatic defeat.

The win took Reims into the last eight and a quarter final encounter with the Hungarian club, Vörös Lobogó, who had stepped up in place of Honvéd. Although perhaps lesser-known than the team that could boast the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, Vörös Lobogó, who would now represent the land of the Magyars, was hardly second rate. They could still number among their players, Mihály Lantos, the international defender with an unerring talent for penalties, the forward Péter Palotás and the incomparable Nándor Hidegkuti. Tragically perhaps, for such a gifted generation of talented footballers, this tournament would be the only time that a truly outstanding club from Hungary would take part in the European Cup competition, the Soviet invasion of the country in October 1956, caused a number of the country’s greatest footballing assets to scatter to other corners of Europe and beyond to escape the crackdown. Puskás himself would end up being a part of the Real Madrid side that destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt at Glasgow in the 1960 European Cup Final.

Eleven days before Christmas 1955, the Reims team took to the field at Parc des Princes in the country’s capital. The crowd, comprising more than six times the number who has attended the second leg in Reims against AGF Aarhus in Reims in October, clearly justified the decision, and with a vociferous crowd behind them, Batteux’s charges swept forward enthusiastically. With Glovacki, comme tojours, finding the net for the opening goal again, this time inside the first quarter-hour, the French team had the early ascendancy. Midfielder Michel Leblond added a second a dozen minutes ahead of the break, and it seemed a useful lead was being established. The Hungarians were in no mood to fold however, and within a minute, Szolnok had halved the advantage, only to see René Bliard restore it once again just before half-time.

A two-goal advantage would be a decent return against such a talented outfit, but when Leblond scored again just before the hour mark, to put Reims 4-1 ahead, the tie was sliding rapidly away from the Hungarians. Heading towards the last ten minutes though, Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst who, ten years later would award the most controversial goal in World Cup history, offered a lifeline with a penalty. Lantos converted and, at 4-2, the door was not firmly shut. All would depend on the early exchanges in Budapest two weeks later.

With the Christmas festivities now behind them, the teams met again on 28 December at the MTK Stadion, Budapest in a game replete with goals and changing fortunes. It was now almost de rigueur that Glovacki would score the opening goal, and that truism was underscored once more as he put the French club into the lead on six minutes. It was an opening of the floodgates. Five minutes later, Lantos notched another spot-kick to square things up on the night, but a brace from Bliard on 20 and 44 minutes had the French in apparent total control, at 1-3 in this game and 4-2 from the first leg, the Hungarians were surely now done. As if to underscore things, Jean Templin added a fourth goal for the visitors, a dozen minutes after the restart. A Palotás strike a minute later seemed the most insignificant of consolations, but another Lantos penalty entering the last 20 minutes offered renewed, if surely ultimately forlorn, hope. Palotás would add a fourth goal for the home team, but with only eight minutes remaining after the strike, it was too little, too late, and Stade de Reims had survived a stormy encounter to win their way into the last four of the competition. The Hungarians were eliminated and, thanks to the political turmoil that would envelop their country the following autumn, with them went the last opportunity for a Hungarian club, comprising players so resplendent in the cherry red of the Magical Magyars national team, to become a force in the nascent European Cup.

The four clubs still standing as the tournament entered the semi-final stage along with Stade de Reims were Real Madrid, AC Milan and, perhaps the least expected of the quartet, Hibernian of Scotland. The Spanish champions had Alfredo Di Stéfano, El Saeta Rubia, to lead their line and on the left the extravagant talent and goalscoring prowess of Gento, under the captaincy of Miguel Muñoz, who would see European Cup success with the club both as a player and manager. The Italian club were full of star players. A few years earlier, they had laid out a world record transfer fee to bring the attacking midfielder Alberto Schiaffino to Serie A from Uruguayan club Peñarol, and placing him alongside such other foreign luminaries as Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Nordahl to bolster the likes of native son, Cesare Maldini made the Rossoneri a formidable outfit. Both clubs had serious aspirations of winning the inaugural tournament, so when pairings saw Stade de Reims pitted against Hibernian, not a few fans of the French club would have considered it a favourable draw. Any hubris though may well have been presumptuous.

Hibs may not have had players of the stature of those donned in the stripes of Milan, the pure white shirts of Madrid, or perhaps even the likes of Kopa, Glowacki or Giraudo of Les Rouge et Blanc. They did however have their own stars, particularly the forward line, dubbed as the ‘Famous Five.’ Forget the denizens of Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination though. Heaps of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer were not on the menu for Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Tunbull and Willie Ormond. Instead, they traded in heaps of goals and lashings of exciting attacking football. The upcoming tie would be no “Five go to France for a Nice Holiday” offering a ‘gimme’ passage to the final.

As so often seems to be the case, the club’s expeditions in Europe were hardly reflected by Stade de Reims fortunes in the domestic league. Following on from their title victory the previous season, they would finish in an inauspicious ninth position, and wouldn’t ascend to the title again until the 1957-58 season, when a revamped team secured the domestic league and cup double, opening the door to a second tilt at the European Cup.

Four days into April, Hibernian visited the Parc des Princes to play Stade de Reims and decide who would feature in the first ever European Cup Final. Any semblance of overconfidence from the home seeped away over the first 45 minutes as the solid Scottish backline not only denied Léon Glovacki his traditional opening goal, but shut out the entire French forward line as well. At the break, the game remained goalless.

Twenty minutes into the second period, French nerves were becoming frayed as Tommy Younger’s robust refusal to concede, ably assisted by his back line, continually frustrated Gallic attempts to force a breakthrough as Kopa insistently drove his team forwards. Resistance was eventually broken as the game entered its final quarter, when a Leblond header finally pierced the stubborn Hibs defence.  Even then, a single goal defeat with the home leg in Edinburgh to come offered manager Hugh Shaw’s side a more than decent prospect of progress. There was just a single minute remaining when the fatal blow was struck though. A ball ran out towards René Bliard, and the forward fired past Younger. The game ended 2-0 and, after an almighty struggle, the had their noses in front.

The Scots had progressed to this stage by comfortably beating the West German club, Rot-Weiss Essen, 5-1 on aggregate, and then triumphing 4-1 on across two legs against Djurgården of Sweden. There were certainly goals in their team, and if they could score first back at Easter Road, with a ferocious host of Scottish fans howling them on, the tie could still be up for grabs. Should the French team deny any early thrusts however, a counterattack as the Scots became increasingly frustrated, could provide a coup de grace.

On a chilly Edinburgh evening in mid-April 1956, the second leg was played out. True to expectations, the Scots raged forward in energetic waves. This time, however, it was the French backline that refused to buckle. Denying each and every threat to go into the break mirroring the position in the first leg. The French club had scored two goals after the break though so, surely, the Scots could do the same. The danger of a counterattack was ever-present however, with the indomitable Kopa looking like a patient sniper awaiting the arrival of his target. There was a feeling of solemn inevitability about the fortunes of the tie when the only goal of the encounter arrived. Another Scottish attack foundered and, as the French gained possession, they launched a rare sortie forward, resulting in a goal from Glovacki.  The forward had missed out in the first leg but, although somewhat later than many of his efforts in earlier rounds, he had notched the first goal in this leg.

It would also be the last goal, and the one that ensured French participation in the first final of the European Cup, to be played out, mais oui, thanks to of the xenophobic efforts of Gallic dominated organisers, in Paris at Parc des Princes, on 13 June 1956. They would face Real Madrid who had overcome Milan. If the opening game of the tournament had been a feast of goals. The final would take things a step or two further as the two clubs battled it out to be the first club champions of Europe.

When the game got under way, it seemed that the Spanish club would get blown away by the speed and ferocity of the Stade de Reims attack. Inside ten minutes of the referee’s whistle to start the game, Les Rouge et Blanc were two goals up. The additional surprise was that neither strike had come from Léon Glovacki. Six minutes in, with the teams still seeking to settle into the game, Leblond fired low past Juan Alonso in the Spanish goal to give Batteux’s team an early advantage. It seemed almost certain that the trophy would be staying France less than four minutes later when a looped through ball from Bliard found wide left man Jean Templin running to collect beyond the Real Madrid backline. He headed the ball on and raced after it to collect. Seeing the danger, Los Blancos goalkeeper, Juan Alonso, plunged towards him to block. The ball bounced free however, and Templin had the fairly simple task of placing it past a covering defender and into the net.

The French club seemed in total control. Two goals to the good, and with Kopa orchestrating attacks from the centre, other goals seemed inevitable. Real Madrid though had a latent power that had yet to ignite. Four minutes after falling two behind, they exploded into action, as their ‘blond arrow’ found its target. A wonderfully incisive pass split the Reims backline and Di Stefano steered the ball home, with René-Jean Jacquet helpless. If the French had thought the game won already, they now faced a radical reassessment. On the half hour things were all square as Héctor Rial fired home from a tight angle. At the break the scores remained level. The destiny of the title was no nearer to being decided than when the game had begun 45 minutes earlier. The only certain thing that appeared certain was that there would be more goals in the second period.

Albert Batteux may have faced a difficult team talk at the break. His players had raced into a comfortable lead, and then seen it snatched away as the Spanish champions played themselves back into the game. He now needed to inspire them to go out and do it all again. With Kopa pulling the strings, there was every chance that they could score again, but there also needed to be a firm resolution that they could win, as well as score.

The hour mark had just ticked past when the first component of the required formula came to pass. A cross from the left was nodded into goal by Michel Hidalgo, the man who would ascend to the managership of Les Bleus, the French national team, 20 years later. Les Rouge et Blanc were back in front again. Could they hold on to the advantage this time. Five minutes later, the answer was revealed to be a firm negative when the defender Marquitos found himself in an unaccustomed forward position. The ball bobbled ungainly as he tried to sort his feet out to fire off a shot, but somehow it bounced forward, perhaps taking a deflection on the way, and found its way inelegantly into the net. The French lead had proven to be fragile once more.

Belief was draining away from the French team as resolution rose in their opponents. Having led twice, once by two goals, and been pulled back each time, a fatalistic depression seemed to settle on the Les Rouge et Blanc’s play. Madrid players grew in stature feeling assured that the winning goal would come. With just over ten minutes to play, it duly arrived, as Rial calmly side-footed home from short range. For the first time in the game, the Spanish club were ahead. Unlike the French, it was a lead they would not relinquish.

Real Madrid launched a domination of European club football that would last unvanquished for five years. Stade de Reims merely had the option of licking their wounds and lamenting what might have been. They had the players, they had the ability, perhaps they lacked that tenacity though, the inner belief that the game was always there for the taking, regardless of the score.

Sadly for the club, it was not only advantages in football matches that Stade de Reims failed to hang onto when faced with challenges from Real Madrid. Raymond Kopa had been an astute addition to the club and despite not scoring many times, was the fulcrum of many of the Les Rouge et Blanc’s attacks. They would also lose him, as he was transferred to Real Madrid. Somewhat strangely, the transfer to Los Blancos was completed just a few days before the clubs met in the inaugural European Cup Final. The timing and subsequent loss to the Spanish club caused some in France to question the commitment offered by Kopa to the Reims cause. Understandable perhaps from a perceived sense of betrayal for the loss of their star player, but grossly unfair on Kopa who was one of the French club’s outstanding players in the final.

For Kopa it was a dream move, having come so close to securing the European Cup, he would now go on to win the next three finals, becoming the first Frenchman to do so when Real Madrid won the 1956-57 tournament, beating Fiorentina in the final. Joined later at then Bernabéu by Ferenc Puskás, he would also collect two La Liga titles, and enjoy a Latin Cup success, before returning to Reims in 1959 to play out the remainder of his career.

The loss of Kopa was keenly felt, but Batteux sought to rebuild the club by adding a series of French international players to the squad. In came Just Fontaine from Nice. The forward would score 145 goals for the club in just 152 games in a scintillating period of forward play. Goalkeeper Dominique Colonna followed a similar path. Jean Vincent ‘sweetly’ arrived from Lille and Roger Piantoni deserted Nancy to link up. Two years later, Batteux’s new charges would win the French domestic double and, again, launch into European competition.

A lot of the early doubts about the validity of the competition had now been washed away. Real Madrid appeared unconquerable, but many would try to unseat them, including Stade de Reims. Even the English had by now deemed it appropriate to tun up. The French pursuit of revenge began with a tie against Ards of Northern Ireland.  A comfortable 10-3 aggregate victory, with Fontaine netting six goals across both legs, set them on their way. Into the next round, they faced a similar sort of challenge from Finland’s HPS. Seven goals without reply finished the Finns.

In the quarter finals, Belgium’s Standard Liège were an entirely different proposition. A 2-0 defeat in Belgium set up a difficult return leg, and with 20 minutes remaining in the Stade Auguste Delaune, the lead remained intact. In the minutes remaining, it took a brace from Fontaine and a strike from Piantoni to get the job done. Perhaps this new Les Rouge et Blanc team had found some of that missing resolution and refusal to bend the knee. In the last four, it was the perhaps immature challenge of Swiss club Young Boys that barred the way to another final. A one goal victory for the Swiss in Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium always looked undercooked, and that impression was confirmed by a 3-0 victory for the French at the Parc des Princes.

On 3 June 1959 at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Stade de Reims had their chance for revenge, but it was not to be. Albert Batteux’s team were perhaps an upgrade on the players who fell short three years earlier, but so were Real Madrid, not least due to the addition of Raymond Kopa who, along with Di Stefano and Gento formed a formidable forward line. The Spanish club dominated the game and eased to victory with goals from Mateos and Di Stefano.

Kopa would return to Reims for the new season, but it’s questionable as to whether. even as they secured another French title in the 1959-60 season, the magic was already draining away into the ether. Their subsequent European Cup attempt certainly hinted that way. A comfortable passage as they cruised by Luxembourg’s Jeunesse Esch was brought to a shuddering halt by English champions Burnley. Armand Penverne had left the club after a dozen years under the colours. Jonquet moved to Strasbourg and Giraudo and Leblond also departed. A last flaring saw another title secured in 1962, after which Fontaine retired.

A final tilt at Europe’s premier club competition was now as effective as that of Don Quixote’s assault on windmills. Success against Austria Wien, was followed in the next round by defeat to Feyenoord. To date, it was final Stade de Reims venture entry into the European Cup.  As the fame and fortune of Real Madrid continued to rise over the next 50 years or so, those of Stade de Reims followed an entirely different trajectory. For the 1962-63 season, a runners-up place to Monaco was secured. It was Albert Batteux’s last term with the club, before departing for further glory with Marseille. He was followed into the Stade de Reims manger’s chair by Camille Cottin, but the new man floundered. A disastrous season saw the club finish in seventeenth position and endure relegation. Not only did it jolt the club, it also led to the departure of the few remaining players who had been part of Batteux’s team. The only one who remained was Kopa, who stayed with the club until 1967.

Problems followed problems as the club struggled. Relegation became a recurring theme as they tumbled down the French pyramid. The club that had once stood on the cusp of being the top club in Europe, seemed lost. There has been a renaissance of sorts however. After gaining promotion back to Ligue 1, Les Rouge et Blanc finished in a creditable mid-table position at the end of the 2018-19 season. It’s hardly enough to draw comparisons with Real Madrid, but it is the latest of a series of moves in the right direction.

Football is replete with stories and laments of ‘sliding doors’ moments. What would have happened if that goal had gone in rather than hit the bar? What about if that penalty hadn’t been missed? Ifs and buts and maybes are the very foodstuffs that sustain debate about the game. So, let’s add one more here. Back in 1956, had Stade de Reims been able to hang on to either of the two leads they held over Real Madrid in that inaugural European Cup Final, how different might the subsequent fates of those two clubs have been? Certainly, France would not have needed to wait for Olympique de Marseille’s victory to acclaim a European champion of their own, and perhaps, just perhaps, it may have been Stade de Reims with 13 European Cups to their name, while Los Blancos flitted around the lower reaches of the Spanish league. Well, perhaps. Perhaps not.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).

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