Allez Calais – Remembering an Epic Cup Run

While it is scarce indeed for any club outside the Premier League to reach the F.A.Cup final, it is not unknown for modest clubs to have epic runs in the French equivalent competition, the Coupe de France. Back in 1999-2000, amateur side Calais Racing Union enjoyed one of the highest profile journeys to the final in the modern era. They became the first fully amateur side in history to reach the final in the competition long history.

Formed in 1902, the “sang et ors” (Blood and Golds) were in the fourth tier CFA 1 in 1999 and were managed by a Spaniard, Ladislas Lozano. He had fled Spain with his family to escape the horrors of the Franco regime and though a talented player himself his nationality prevented any great club or international career in his adopted homeland. At the time of the great cup run, he was a foreman for the council looking after the areas sporting facilities. At the time the football club played at the tiny Stade Julien Denis, home for 80 years at the time and now used by their reserves. The club did not move to their magnificent Stade de L’Epopee until 2008.

Calais in 2000 was a depressed place, 17% unemployment and nearly half the town’s population of 75,000 people earning under £5,000 a year. The cup run bought the often bypassed port town to national attention, France was gripped by “Calaismania”.

They has defeated the likes of Saint-Nicolas-les-Arras (3-1), Marly-les-Valenciennes (2-1) and Bethune (1-0) before being paired with Second Division side Lille. The match against their huge near neighbours surprisingly took place as the tiny Julien Denis and the home side pulled off the shock defeating Lille 7-6 on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The draw fell kindly for the northerners in the next round, a home tie against fifth tier Langnon-Castets. The home side ran out comfortable 3-0 victors. This put the amateurs in the eighth-finals and a pairing against Second Division Cannes. The home tie was moved to Bolougne’s Stade de la Liberation and resulted in another penalty shoot out success, 4-1 after a 1-1 stalemate. Into the quarters Calais were paired at home to Division 1 giants RC Strasbourg, surely the end of the road for the minnows. Staged at Lens, incredibly the dock boys won 2-1 against their mighty visitors. Lens was again the venue for the semi-final and 40,000 Calaisens decended on the Stade Bollaert for the game against Ligue 1 heavyweights Girondins Bordeaux, a nation held its breath surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice. Boasting internationals Christophe Dugarry, Johan Micoud, Lillian Laslandes, Sylvan Legwinski and Ulrich Rame surely it was a game too far. It wasn’t. Goalless at full time the minnows won 3-1 in extra time with goals from Jandau, Millien and Lestavel.

The semi-final triumph sent the town into pandemonium, the players enjoyed a £10,000 a man winning bonus from a local benefactor and partied hard in a middle of the night reception at the town hall. Streets were packed at 3am for the victory parade and a 4.30am the town hall hosted a duck and foie gras dinner for the triumphant club. The celebration took its toll on Lozano, collapsing to the ground and spending three days in hospital. When he came round the then President of France, Jacques Chirac, rang him to send best wishes and say “Can we meet in the Stade de France”.

The ticket allocation for the final didn’t sit well with the club or commune. Their allocation of 19,300 was less than half their supporter numbers for the semi final. The club appealed to other clubs to buy their allocations, but were quoted outrageous prices. Those lucky enough to secure a ticket were helped out by the commune subsidising travel to Paris for the final. £17.50 return secured a place on clapped out trains pressed into service for the journey to the capital.

The final took place on May 7th at the Stade de France in front of a huge crowd of 78,586. Nantes Atalantique of Ligue 1 were overwhelming favourites despite the redoubtable battling qualities of the CFA amateurs. A tense first half saw Nantes dominate possession yet squander several chances to secure an advantage. Unbelievably in the 34th minute, it happened, Racing broke downfield and won a corner. The ball then ended up in international goalkeeper, Michael Landreau’s net courtesy of Jerome Dutitre. The rank outsiders held on until half time heading to the dressing rooms with a one goal lead. Four minutes into the second half, Nantes’ Antoine Sibierski levelled the game at 1-1. Just as the game looked like it would head to extra time, the Ligue 1 side were awarded a penalty in injury time. Sibierski beat Cedric Schille with his spot kick to break a nation’s collective heart. Sportingly Landreau, the Nantes captain allowed his counterpart, Reginald Becque, to lift the cup with him as an acknowledgement to a courageous adventure. Thus little Calais Racing joined a club of three sides, alongside Ouakam of Senegal and Nigeria’s Leventis United, from outside a countries third tier to reach the final of their nation’s major domestic club competition.

(First published in the ”Miles Across The World” column in Southend United’s matchday programme v Bristol Rovers 13/04/13)