“Frankly, you dream of moments like this all the time – but you never imagine you’ll actually live them out. It’s crazy.”
Those were the words of Olivier Robin, Epinal’s goalkeeper, after his third-tier team had knocked holders (and joint Ligue 1 leaders) Lyon out of the Coupe de France on Sunday afternoon. On a weekend Lyon and fellow high-fliers Valenciennes and Rennes were among half-a-dozen top-flight sides knocked out by lower league opposition, Epinal’s exploit was less believable and more plus ça change.
The actual giant-killings weren’t the whole story. Hot favourites Paris Saint-Germain weren’t so far from humiliation at fifth-tier Arras (a match that they eventually won 4-3), fellow Ligue 1 leaders Marseille needed extra-time at their own Vélodrome home to squeeze past Ligue 2’s Guingamp and two other top-flight teams, Evian and Brest, needed penalties to get past amateur opponents.
There was even the ‘did-I-just-hear-that-right?’ instance of a manager blaming himself after one cup shock, with SC Bastia’s Fréderic Hantz taking the rap personally for his side’s exit to third-tier neighbours CA Bastia – a derby which was, curiously, played elsewhere in Corsica (at Ajaccio), as the Ligue 1 side are currently barred from playing at home or indeed in their own town. “I apologise because I had a group of Ligue 1 players at my disposition,” Hantz said after the game, “and against a team from the National (third division), I clearly didn’t find the right way to prepare them, didn’t make the right tactical choices and didn’t find the right words to motivate them and make them successful.”
Given that a lot of English fans spent Saturday moaning about the lack of FA Cup shocks (chatter subsequently eclipsed by the widespread moral indignation over the manner of Luis Suarez’s winner against Mansfield the following day), we have to ask – what does the Coupe de France have these days that our cross-channel equivalent seems to have lost?
This past weekend’s antics are no fluke. Six non-Ligue 1 sides have reached the final since the millennium, beginning with the most heroic of them all, amateur fourth-tier Calais, who lost narrowly to Nantes in the 2000 final – 12 months before Les Canaris went on to become champions of France. Guingamp, who count Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda among their alumni, even won the trophy as a Ligue 2 side in 2009. Then Lyon won the 2012 trophy last spring with a narrow victory over third division Quevilly, with the winning captain Cris inviting Quevilly counterpart Grégory Beaugrard up to lift the trophy with him.
There has been some cultural fusion. Taking its lead from its English counterpart, the Coupe de France has become more and more diverse as the years have gone by, with almost 7,500 clubs entering each year now, almost four times the amount of entrants that there were in 1976. Yet the main body of the Coupe’s excitement is of its own making. The basis for many of these shocks is the one-off nature of the ties, with no replays and a move directly to penalties if there’s no winner after 120 minutes. It is hard to believe that most managers in England wouldn’t welcome a trimming of their own domestic calendar; and it would be a rare example of a scheduling adjustment benefitting supporters in terms of both finance and excitement.
“It’s the magic of football,” said Fabien Tissot, Epinal’s coach after Sunday’s win. Indeed it was. And don’t we all want a bit of that?
Click here to read more from European football expert Andy Brassell.