By David Pendleton
The team from the fourth tier captured the nation’s hearts. Run on a virtually non-existent budget, the gallant team, passionately supported by fans bedecked in the club’s distinctive colours, caused shock after shock en route to becoming the most unlikeliest cup finalists of all-time.
This wasn’t BradfordCity; it was Calais Racing Union FC and their appearance in the French Cup Final of 2000. With a staff of two, a ground with a (then) 5,000 capacity and a playing squad comprised of entirely part time players, their cup final appearance was arguably the most astonishing cup run in football history. Their nine match cup run caused such heavy fixture congestion that they were forced to play every third day. The manager and chief executive worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week, which resulted in a heart attack for the manager during celebrations in the wake of their semi-final victory (Phil Parkinson beware).
When Calais defeated the reining French league champions Bordeaux in a thrilling semi-final, where all the goals came in extra-time, the team arrived back in Calais for a civic reception at 2.30am, rode on an open top bus through packed streets at 3am and enjoyed a dinner of duck foie gras at 4am!
For Calais, a town often the butt of demeaning jokes which suffers from high unemployment, the cup final appearance was the opportunity to show the town, and its football club, in a positive light. When the usually sober Le Monde published an eight page supplement on the club it confirmed the fact that ‘Calaismania’ had overtaken France. A reporter from the Washington Post even appeared on the town’s street much to the bemusement of the locals.
Inevitably the final brought with it complaints about ticket prices and allocation – Calais received 19,300 tickets for the final; they had been watched by 38,374 in the semi-final at Lens. The final against Nantes was a classic. The ferry workers, shop assistants and gardeners of Calais incredibly took the lead against a Nantes side reputedly worth £20m. Sadly, Nantes equalised and then won the cup with a late penalty.
The French press hailed Calais gallant effort. Their passion and sheer effort was widely viewed as refreshing in a game increasingly dominated by finance. The noisy, colourful and good humoured supporters, who descended on Stade de France in their tens of thousands, were a contrast to some leading clubs troubled by hooligans and cynicism.
The revenue earned in the cup run allowed the club to clear its debts and build a brand new 12,342 all-seater stadium. They rose to the second division but in 2012 Calais were liquidated after substantial debts were run up. Happily a new club has risen out of the ashes of the old. A familiar football story, but once again Calais can dream of another cup run.
Did I mention the fact that Calais play in red and yellow stripes with black shorts? If town’s can have twins in Europe, why not football clubs? Bradford City twinned with Calais Racing Union FC? A footballing entente cordial between two clubs who have brought hope, and not a little romance, back to the game.