BEFORE PSG got rich and threatened to join the uber-clubs of Europe, French football had only spasmodically made an impact on the big stages. True, Stade de Reims reached a couple of European Cup finals in the nascent years of the European Cup, and Marseille won the competition in the 1990s, but the team that captured the hearts of European football watchers was Saint-Etienne of the mid-1970s.
Most people will struggle to put a pin in the map and tell you where Saint-Etienne is located. It’s in the Massif Central, and is a name synonymous with the French bicycle industry. It has often been a Tour de France stage. It was once a big coal mining area. And if justice had been done, this city of 170,000 people would have been known as the home of the 1976 European champions.
Founded in 1919, Saint-Etienne’s golden age started in the late 1960s with four Ligue 1 titles between 1966-67-68 and 1969-70 and two Coupe de France wins in 1967-68 and 1969-70. Pivotal in this successful period was the Malian striker Salif Keita, who scored 125 goals in 149 games for the club, including 71 in his final two seasons. Saint-Etienne assumed that Keita, like many African-born players, would take French nationality, but he refused and departed for Spain’s Valencia in 1972.
Keita’s move to Spain had further controversy attached to it as the Spanish press claimed, “Valencia goes out to buy Germans and comes back with a black man”. Nevertheless, and thankfully, Keita was popular at his new club and became known as La perla negra de Mali (the black pearl from Mali). Keita’s success was a signal that the game in France was beginning to tap into its colonial territories, rather like Portugal did in the 1960s with players like Eusebio and Mario Coluna.
The gallic Billy Bremner
One of the most influential figures in the late 1960s for Saint-Etienne was Robert Herbin, compared by many to Leeds United’s Billy Bremner. English fans may recall the limping figure of the French international midfielder-cum-defender at Wembley in 1966 after he collided with Bobby Moore. Herbin, who was later recognizable for his red frizzy hairstyle, was moved to full back by coach Albert Batteux, the brains behind the Stade de Reims side of the 1950s and the France side of 1958. In 1972, Batteux stepped aside and Herbin became one of the youngest coaches in the game at the age of 33.
Herbin’s preferred style was not a million kilometres away from the approach of neighbouring Holland and Germany. In other words, it was the spirit of Total Football with un peu de prudence. In 1973-74, Herbin’s Saint-Etienne won the title, finishing eight points ahead of Nantes. They completed the double by beating Monaco in the cup final 2-1. In the European Cup the following season, the continent saw the first signs of an emerging force. Les Verts beat Sporting Lisbon, Hadjuk Split (a dramatic comeback) and Ruch Chorzow on the way to the semi-final, where they met Bayern Munich. Not for the last time, their more cavalier approach came unstuck against the clinical, methodical and Beckenbauer-organised Germans, who won 2-0 on aggregate.
The side, however, was taking shape nicely and was founded on a strong defence. Goalkeeper Ivan Curkovic from Mostar was a Yugoslav international and an Olympic gold medallist. Pierre Repellini and Gerard Farison were both international full-backs, while Christan Lopez and Oswaldo Piazza were outstanding central defenders. Energy in midfield came from Gerard Janvion, Jean-Michel Larque, the muscular Dominique Bathenay and Christian Synaeghal, and up front, the Revelli brothers, Patrick and Herve, helped by Yves Triantafilos, provided the goals.
The Green Angel
Saint-Etienne’s success provided a boost to the ailing French game. After the demise of the French side of Kopa and Fontaine, domestic football took a downturn, with crowds falling to all-time lows. Something changed at the start of the 1970s as development schemes produced some very good players. Saint-Etienne were the first French club to get through to the country through the small screen. And by 1975-76, they had a player who was tailor-made for TV exposure- Dominique Rocheteau.
He was a 20 year-old forward who had the looks and panache of a teen idol and the sort of virtuosity that earned him the tag of “the French George Best”. Rocheteau was a graceful player who combined pace, dribbling skills and poise. His nickname was as elegant as his style, L’Ange Vert , the Green Angel. He liked rock and roll, notably the Eagles and the sound of west coast America.
Rocheteau was constantly earmarked as a man to watch by publication like World Soccer and the 1975-76 campaign saw him come to the fore in the European Cup. Rocheteau and his team-mates won many friends for their performance at Ibrox Park as Saint-Etienne beat Rangers 2-1 and 4-1 on aggregate. And then he tore Dynamo Kiev apart as Les Verts came back from 0-2 away defeat to beat the Soviets 3-0. After overcoming PSV Eindhoven in the semi-finals, Saint-Etienne returned to Glasgow to meet old foes Bayern Munich in the final at Hampden Park.
It should have been the crowning of a new European power. Saint-Etienne’s flowing football, highly technical and extremely watchable and admirable, made them natural successors to the Dutch masters of Ajax and Feyenoord. Rocheteau could have been almost as influential as Cruyff was for the Netherlands. But there were question marks over his fitness and generally, of Saint-Etienne’s stamina – often they would run themselves into the ground. Rocheteau only played seven minutes due to his injury, replacing Christian Sarramagna, who, contrary to his name, was not a James Bond villain.
For long periods, Saint-Etienne outplayed Bayern at Hampden, striking the woodwork through Bathenay and spurning at least a dozen good chances. French fans blamed Hampden’s goals for this bad luck, les poteaux carres, the square posts. The Glasgow public were willing them on, the watching neutrals urging them to win. But this was Bayern, a team that soaked up everything that Leeds could muster a year earlier before hitting them with a late double. They had won two successive European Cups prior to this game and knew exactly how to time their run and take advantage of a tiring opponent. It was a free kick from Franz Roth that won the game and broke French hearts. For many, it was comparable to West Germany’s World Cup win against the Netherlands two years earlier. Tearful Saint-Etienne would never come as close again.
Testing the reds
The 1975-76 season saw Saint-Etienne complete another hat-trick of Ligue 1 titles, but in 1976-77 they slipped to fifth place, 13 points behind champions Nantes. They won the Coupe de France, however and in Europe went on another exciting run, reaching the last eight.
Les Verts scraped through against CSKA Sofia in the first round, thanks to a second leg goal at home by Osvaldo Piazza, the under-rated Argentine. The second round was another 1-0 aggregate win, this time against PSV Eindhoven, and Piazza was the matchwinner once more. This paired Herbin’s side with Liverpool. In the first leg, Bathenay scored 12 minutes from time at a heated Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. The second meeting was a classic and has lived on in footballing folklore in Liverpool. Around 6,000 fans, armed with green and white wigs, klaxons, whistles and sirens, invaded Merseyside. Liverpool took less than a minute to level the aggregate scores, through Kevin Keegan. But Bathenay scored a spectacular long range equalizer with a dipped beyond Ray Clemence. For a while, it looked as though Saint-Etienne would go through, the video of the game, available on You Tube, shows how close it was. But Ray Kennedy gave Liverpool and 2-1 lead, which was still not enough owing to the away goals rule and near the end, with the Liverpool crowd in a near-frenzy, David Fairclough made it 3-1 and won the tie. Liverpool went on to win the European Cup, but their players were unanimous; Saint-Etienne were one of the best sides in Europe and the toughest hurdle they faced on the way to winning the competition. Scant consolation for Herbin and co. but let’s not forget, this was a very good Liverpool team.
And in the end…
That defeat signaled the end of Saint-Etienne’s golden age, although in 1978, the four members of the France World Cup squad from the club – Janvion, Lopez, Bathenay and Rocheteau, who were all 25 or under. They didn’t win Ligue 1 again until 1980-81, by which time, Michel Platini had been signed from Nancy. A year later, he left for Juventus and in 1983, Herbin departed. Scandal engulfed the club and in 1984, they were relegated. They are back where they belong today, but whatever they do, it is unlikely to eclipse the achievements of Herbin’s glorious team. “Allez Les Verts”, as they say in the Rue Paul et Pierre Guichard….