In 2012-13, a team from Reims returned to France’s Ligue 1 for the first time in over 30 years. They finished the season in the lower half of the league table, but they’re back, after a long struggle that has seen Reims fall as low as the third level of French football and come back from two bankruptcies. There’s still an appetite for the game in the historic city of 188,000, with around 10% of the population likely to turn up to the Stade Auguste Delaune for Ligue 1 games.
It’s hard to believe in this Champions League week, but Stade de Reims played in two European Cup finals, in 1956 and 1959, losing both times to Real Madrid. At one time, Reims were the top club in France, not only regularly winning the title, but also providing a sizeable percentage of the French national team.
Reims’ golden age was in the 1950s. They won the French league in 1949 and then picked up five more titles up until 1962. Managed by Albert Batteaux, a progressive coach whose philosophy was to fashion his team in the way best suited to the talent at his disposal, Reims adopted an attacking style that relied on pace. They called it “champagne football”, and it certainly had a lot of fizz about it. Batteaux was more influential than most people realize, because his protégés, Michel Hidalgo and Aime Jacquet won the European Championship and World Cup respectively in their managerial careers.
But on the pitch, Reims’ star-man was Raymond Kopa, the son of Polish immigrants. Kopa, a squat figure who possessed lightning pace, two-footed dexterity and dribbling skills that left opponents dazed and confused, was one of the superstars of early post-WW2 football. In 1950 when he left Angers for Reims, he was earning £ 180 per week – long before the wage structure changed in British football. Kopa, despite his relatively high-earning career, became something of a champion of players’ rights, claiming that “footballers are slaves”.
Kopa helped drive Reims to the final of the first European Cup. Reims beat Aarhus of Denmark, Hungary’s Voros Lobogo (MTK Budapest) and Hibernian before meeting the mighty Real Madrid. Kopa laid on two goals for team-mates Michel Leblond and Jean Templin in the first 10 minutes. Real came back to level, but Michel Hidalgo restored Reims’ lead before the interval. But two goals from Rial gave Real a 4-3 victory to lift the cup.
Kopa was lured to Madrid by the victors, but the £ 38,000 paid to Reims enabled the club to buy a number of star players: Just Fontaine (Nice), Jean Vincent (Lille) and Roger Piantoni (FC Nancy), all three being French internationals.
While Kopa went off to win further fame and fortune with Real – three European Cups and two league titles in three years – Fontaine’s goals, 122 in 131 games ensured the momentum continued at Reims. Fontaine was one of half a dozen Reims men in the 1958 World Cup squad and the centre forward ended the tournament as top scorer with 13 goals.
In 1959, Reims reached the European Cup final again, but this time there was no drama, Reims were beaten 2-0 by Real Madrid in Stuttgart, and lining up for the Spanish side was none other than Kopa, albeit in an unfamiliar right wing position. By the start of 1959-60, he was back in his central playmaker role with Reims and he helped them to the title in 1960 and 1962.
Then it all went en forme de poire for Reims. Kopa finished in 1967 at a time when attendances in France had plummeted. Reims were relegated in 1979. In 1991, the club went into liquidation and changed its name to Stade de Reims Champagne FC. The club was reborn in 1992 but due to the parlous state of its finances, it operated as an amateur concern. At least it reverted to its old name in 1999 and three years on, regained professional status.
It wasn’t until 2011-12 that Reims won promotion back to the top division, finishing runners-up to Bastia. It’s been a long road back to respectability but it’s unlikely that Reims will ever be as influential or as successful as in their hey-day. It might not be “champagne football”, but they are no longer in the wilderness.