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Football’s most unique cup competition: the Coupe de France

“The greatest cup competition in the world is back”: a phrase commonly trotted out amongst English pundits and supporters this time every season. It is the first weekend of a new year, the weekend of the third round of the English FA Cup.

After eight previous rounds, the first of which being the extra-preliminary round in August involving teams from levels eight, nine and 10 of the English football pyramid, the third round sees the big boys from the Premier League and Championship enter the draw. Third round weekend always throws up intriguing stories: will two giants draw each other thus eliminating a potential champion early doors? Will a David versus Goliath tie come out of the hat with top flight international footballers scrutinised by plucky part-time players at a cold, wet and dark non-league ground? Finally, of course, which cup-sets will take place?

The FA Cup third round is truly historic and unique. However, dig deeper beyond patriotic bias and there is another unique cup competition to rival if not surpass the FA Cup. That competition is the Coupe de France, French football’s main domestic cup competition.

Sport’s largest & most diverse competition

As previously mentioned, prior to the third round of the FA Cup eight qualification rounds have to be navigated. Emerging from this long and challenging qualification are 20 lucky teams who then join the 24 teams from the Championship and the 20 teams from the Premier League. This season saw 735 sides enter the competition from all across England.

Large and inclusive one might think. Compared to the Coupe de France, however, it is small and exclusive. Yes folks, 2019/20 has seen a remarkable 7,334 clubs enter into the competition, nearly ten times its English counterpart. Clubs all the way down in tier 10 of the English football pyramid participate in the FA Cup, yet once again this statistic is dwarfed by its French counterpart. 

The lowest ranked team to participate in the 2019/20 edition of the Coupe de France (whose first rounds actually took place at the end of the 2018/19 season) was Alsace outfit US Niederbronn-les-Bains who play in the 17th tier of French football. Their first round tie was a home clash against fellow Alsatian outfit FC Wingersheim, themselves of the French 9th tier. With an eight-division difference between the sides, it was no surprise that Wingersheim prevailed against Niederbronn-les-Bains with an expected 12-0 scoreline.

The population of both aforementioned places are 4,476 and 2,305 respectively. From Brest to Strasbourg and Dunkirk to Bonifacio, the Coupe de France covers every part of the nation from the capital Paris to the smallest village in Normandy.

The cup competition that touches every corner of the globe

Even more unique, however, is that participation in the competition is not solely restricted to the mainland. Entry is also permitted to clubs playing in France’s overseas territories and departments. Such places, known in French as ‘d’outre mer’ are aligned in their governance and rules with mainland France and the population of such territories are full French citizens. The two most famous d’outre mer footballers were 1998 FIFA World Cup winners Christian Karembeu, born in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

Each of France’s overseas territories and departments have their own qualification structure played in conjunction with the early mainland rounds. The best performing teams from each overseas qualification structure then enter into the main draw along with teams from the mainland. Round seven of the Coupe de France is considered the equivalent of the FA Cup’s First Round. It is the round where the entrants from the first fully professional league (Ligue 2) enter into the competition.

Sides from d’outre mer first entered the Coupe de France in the 1961/62 season. The best performing first entrants were CS Moulien from Guadeloupe who reached round five of the competition. Their opponents at the time were FC Dieppe, then playing in the Higher Normandy regional championship. CS Moulien narrowly lost 3-2. 

The first side from d’outre mer to defeat a side from the mainland were Golden Star, located in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, located in the Caribbean. Golden Star are Martinique’s third most successful club with 16 domestic titles and they achieved history in 1974/75 with a 2-1 replay win over third tier US Melun on home soil after a 1-1 draw in the initial tie. The men from Martinique however, quickly came back down to earth in the next round, their top-tier opponents Nice dishing out an 8-0 thrashing. 

Prior to this season, the outright best performance from a d’outre mer side was in the 1988-89 edition. That campaign, ASC Le Geldar Kourou from French Guyana achieved two victories against third-division EAC Chaumont and fifth-division FC Sens to reach the last 32 and a dream tie against top flight outfit FC Nantes. The fairy-tale story came to a conclusion for Geldar Kourou, Nantes winning emphatically by a score-line of 11-0 over two legs.

As this season’s edition of the Coupe de France now arrives at the last-32 stage, after the conclusion of the last 64 stage, only one d’outre mer outfit remains in the competition. JS Saint Pierroise are Réunion’s most successful club with 20 domestic championships. Inspired by Geldar Kourou’s heroics 31 seasons ago, JSSP – as the Reunionese outfit are colloquially known – had already knocked out two sides from mainland France in the seventh and eighth rounds. Their two victims were a 1-0 away win against fourth tier Jura Sud Foot and a penalty shootout home victory against fifth-tier ES Thaon after a 1-1 draw after extra time.

A tough task against second-tier Chamois Niortais away awaited JSSP in the last 64. However, the amateurs from Reunion, just off the back of a 9,000 kilometre trip prevailed against the professional Ligue 2 outfit by a 2-1 scoreline. Former Blackpool man Elliot Grandin featured for the plucky underdogs who have now matched the performance of Geldar Kourou on 1988/89.

JSSP’s eighth-round victory this campaign against ES Thaon, achieved in front of 7,000 people, is what makes the Coupe de France the world’s most unique cup competition. A team of amateur players from a small commune in Eastern France near Nancy flying out to a small island in the Indian Ocean sandwiched between Madagascar and Mauritius to play a football match on a Sunday evening in December. This could well have been the first opportunity for some of Thaon’s players to travel overseas and with Reunion’s location in the Southern Hemisphere, it gives them a weekend of winter sun on the side of playing a football match. 

Representation of teams from locations such as Mayotte, Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia, Tahiti and Saint Pierre et Miquelon give the Coupe de France a presence on all the World’s continents apart from Asia. The latter of those locations is located south of Newfoundland & Labrador on Canada’s Atlantic border and comprises of an archipelago of islands with a combined population of just 6,008 inhabitants. The British Empire was often said to be “the Empire on which the sun never sets”. The sun never sets on the Coupe de France and it is the world’s only transcontinental knockout club cup competition.

Cupsets and unbelievable underdog stories

Many a famous cupset and performance from an underdog has made the FA Cup famous worldwide. Think non-league Sutton United knocking out First Division Coventry City in 1988/89 courtesy of a Matt Hanlan strike. Think non-league Stevenage’s memorable home tie and replay against Kenny Daglish’s Newcastle United in the third round of 1997/98.

Yet, this is not solely exclusive to England. The Coupe de France has provided viewers and spectators with a plethora of memorable stories over the seasons. One major criticism of modern football is latter stages of domestic cup competitions are increasingly becoming out of reach for clubs outside of the elite. 

A huge contrast to this statement occurred in the 1998/99 edition. FC Nantes of Ligue 1 won the trophy yet the three other semi-finalists were all second division sides (CS Sedan Ardennes, Le Mans UC 72 and Nîmes Olympique).

The following season in France an even more remarkable story occurred. Calais is normally most famous for its status as a passenger ferry port town. Yet in 1999/00, the club’s football team Calais RUFC stole the show and won the hearts and support of neutrals across France. 

The initial indication something special was brewing came in the last 64 of the competition when the fourth-tier outfit eliminated then second-tier Lille 7-6 on penalties following a 1-1 draw. Fifth-tier Langon-Castet were then Calais’ next victims in the last 32 before another penalty shootout victory against second-tier AS Cannes in the last 16. 

Calais’ two most memorable victories then came in the quarter final and semi final with victories over Ligue 1 sides RC Strasbourg and Girondins de Bordeaux respectively. Against all odds, the northern outfit had reached the final of France’s main cup competition, the first time ever for a fourth-tier side. 

It was an echo of the achievement of League Two Bradford City who reached the English League Cup final in 2012/13. Facing then reigning cup holders Nantes, a side who would go on to win the Ligue 1 title the following season, Calais and their entirely amateur playing squad had the backing of all neutrals across the country as they and a legion of supporters headed to the Stade de France for the final.

Briefly, the underdogs threatened the greatest sensation in history. Striker Jerome Duitre, released by Strasbourg as a youngster put Calais ahead in the 34th minute. Regrettably, however, the fairy-tale could not be completed. Future Manchester City striker Antoine Sibierski equalised for Nantes in the 50th minute and then a highly-controversial last minute penalty converted by Sibierski broke Calais’ hearts and made Nantes arguably the most unloved cup winners of all time. 

Calais may have fallen at the final hurdle, yet their story attracted the attention of the world’s press including British news channel Sky News. Calais’ historic run to the final was even made into a commemorative DVD in France appropriately titled “Merci Calais La Coupe de Coeur” (Thank You Calais The Cup of Hearts). 

Sadly for Calais, things all went downhill after this glorious high moment as financial problems lead to their liquidation in September 2017. Encouragingly, however, football in the town has been revived with the founding of two separate clubs. For the 2018/19 campaign, Calais Football Club de Haute de France was founded with the support of a local entrepreneur Gregory Duvieuxbourg. Additionally another club in the city was formed in the summer of 2019, Grand Calais Pascal FC, as the residents dream of a repeat of the glorious miracle of twenty years ago once more.

Two seasons ago, perhaps inspired by Calais’ heroics, third tier side VF Les Herbiers embarked on a remarkable run to the final of the Coupe de France. Les Herbiers, from a small town of just over 16,000 inhabitants in the Pays-de-la-Loire region more famous for its annual Chrono des Nations bicycle race, had to enter the competition at the fifth round stage. By reaching the final, the club overcame a remarkable nine opponents including two in regionalised Pays-de-la-Loire Coupe de France rounds. 

Unlike Calais in 2000, Les Herbiers did not have to eliminate a single top-tier side en route to the final, their most notable scalps being second tier sides Auxerre and Lens in the last 16 and quarter final respectively. Just like Calais 18 seasons earlier, Les Herbiers unfortunately, yet perhaps understandably, could not complete the fairy-tale. The superstars of Paris St Germain awaited Les Herbiers in the final, yet the third-tier semi-professional outfit were not disgraced, losing by a very respectable scoreline of just 2-0.

So what memorable stories await in 2019/20?

The lowest ranked sides remaining in the English FA Cup last 64 are two fifth-tier sides, Hartlepool and AFC Fylde. However, in France, SSEP Hombourg-Haut from the Moselle region of Eastern France and the French eight tier were the lowest-ranked remaining teams. One unique feature of the Coupe de France is when a lower league side is drawn against an opponent from a higher division, they are given home advantage to ensure a memorable day out for local fans of said clubs and their communities. 

The Coupe de France last 64 draw was littered with some intriguing ties. A local south eastern derby between Étoile Fréjus Saint Raphael of the French fourth tier lost just 2-0 to Ligue 1’s OGC Nice, managed by Les Bleus legend Patrick Vieira and owned by British billionaire Sir Jim Radcliffe. Not to mention of course JSSP’s stunning victory against Niort after a long and tiring plane journey.

Current holders Rennes began the defence of their title in a tough home tie against fellow Ligue 1 outfit Amiens. The Breton side prevailed but not without a challenge, sneaking through 5-4 on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Finally, in the round’s true David vs Goliath encounter between sixth-tier minnows ESA Linas-Montlhery and French football’s heavyweights Paris St Germain, the greatest cup shock in history did not materialise as PSG proved far too strong in recording a 6-0 victory. 

Like the previous round, the draw for the last 32 sees some intriguing ties. JSSP have been drawn away once again and face a long trip from the Indian Ocean. However, their opponents, fourth tier SAS Espinal are on paper at least, a worse side than Niort. History is on the line, can JSSP make history by beating SAS Espinal and stand alone as the best-ever performing d’outre mer side in the competition’s history. Defending champions Rennes have been handed a David v Goliath tie with an away tie against Athletico Marseille, the joint lowest ranked side left in the competition from the French fifth tier. Lille also face fifth tier opposition in an away David v Goliath tie against ESM Gonfreville. Finally, the tie of the round and remarkably, the only all Ligue 1 tie across the board sees Nantes drawn at home against Lyon.

The Coupe de France may not be as well publicised as its English counterpart but all of the aforementioned factors make it the world’s most diverse and unique cup competition. The last 32 ties take place on the weekend beginning 18-19th January. It is a competition certainly worth paying attention to in the new year.

30 years-old sports fanatic from near Wigan, United Kingdom. Season ticket holder at Wigan Athletic in the second tier English Championship. Alongside Heart of Football, writes for Its Round and Its White. Passionate about all football, English Premier League, English Football League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and other European and World football leagues, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and International Football. Favourite Moment: Being at Wembley Stadium in May 2013 to watch Wigan defeat Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup Final.

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