The full-time whistle blew on May 21st, 2022 and Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace’s players found out that what could have been a famous day in the club’s history was relegated to one they would want to forget. It had not mattered that they were losing 4-0 to Ligue 1 giants Olympique Marseille because they were still headed to the Europa Conference League due to OGC Nice trailing Stade de Reims 2-0. That is, until Andy Delort hit a seven (7!) minute hat trick to win the match for Nice and jump them above RC Strasbourg in the table.
The disappointment for Strasbourg in missing out on a European adventure was significant, especially being so close. They had recently qualified for the Europa League via their incredible 2018-19 Coupe de La Ligue win but had to toil through an arduous qualification that culminated in them being summarily dumped out at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt before they reached the competition proper. So Strasbourg securing European football via their Ligue 1 position would have been something special.
It would have been special in a recent sense because in 2011 the club was trying to find its way back from the 5th Tier of French football, having nearly suffered total liquidation. It also would have been special in a historic sense as this club is truly European by its very nature. RC Strasbourg represents Alsace and Alsace’s history means this is a club and a culture that transcends the nation that claims it.
Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace was founded in 1906. The club was founded though as 1. FC Neudorf, after a neighborhood of Straßburg, Elsaß-Lothringen. 1.FCN as it was known was a local, Alsatian answer to a number of football clubs in town that were closely linked with German transplants to the region such as Straßburger Fußball Verein and FC Frankonia.
All this German language in what we know as a French region is due to two main factors. The first is because during the Franco-Prussian War, a large portion of the areas known to the French as Alsace and Lorraine were seized and incorporated into the newly unified German Empire. The second and more important is that the Alsatian dialect is not a dialect of French but a dialect of German.
During German rule, Alsace insisted on some measure of autonomy and they were governed solely by the Kaiser, with no levels of German bureaucracy allowed to govern the Alsatians other than the Head of State himself. Nevertheless, the German language and culture began to be pushed on Alsace. As a result, 1.FCN quickly became an outlet for Alsatians to continue to express their culture.
They began life in the regional setup of German football, in the 3rd Tier of the Southern League known as Division C. By 1912 they had won the League and promotion to Division B. 1.FCN looked destined for big things as their new success became a platform for them to find a new venue. The previously mentioned FC Frankonia were sitting on a site known as Hammerle Garten which the Neudorf owners persuaded them to vacate (for a few hundred marks a month.) This would become RC Strasbourg’s home to this very day. Dark days were coming to Strasbourg though and with them, change for 1. FC Neudorf.
In 1914, World War I started and without going into the political and social machinations that made this war what it was, the short of it was that Alsatians, who had been part of France less than 40 years prior, were now part of an Empire at war with France. The conflict of interest was more than many Alsatians were comfortable with so at the outset of the War, Alsatians volunteered in droves for the Kaiserliche Marine, the German Imperial Navy.
This was a way of staying out of the direct fighting against their neighbors in trench lines that were established mere miles from Strasbourg itself. The impact in the end of Alsatian participation was significant. They had a direct impact on the end of the German Kaiserreich as the Kiel Mutiny was the spark that lit the fire of revolution in Germany at the end of the war. The Treaty of Versailles returned Alsace to France and as a result, 1. FC Neudorf needed a new name.
Racing Club de Strasbourg was born. The name was selected in part due to the popularity of Racing Club de France, a successful Parisian club. The club was placed into Alsace’s regional league as French football did not have a national league and the Coupe de France served as the only national competition. Racing took to the Alsatian Championship quickly and claimed titles in 1923, ‘24 and ‘27.
By 1933, the club decided to go fully professional and pursue placement in the newly formed French National Leagues. They were placed in Ligue 2 and went up at the first time of asking. It took playoff matches against fellow Alsatians Mulhouse and St. Etienne to book their place in the top flight. After winning the home leg against St. Etienne 2-0, Racing played out an absolute classic with Les Verts. 4-4 was the final score and that 6-4 aggregate scoreline was enough to take Racing to Ligue 1.
This period was one of the greatest in Racing’s history. They finished runners-up by a single point to FC Sochaux-Montbeliard in their first season in the top flight, followed by a third-place finish the following year. In 1937, they reached the Coupe de France Final against Sochaux. German striker Oskar Rohr got Racing off on the right foot with a goal in the 32nd minute but Argentinean Miguel Angel Lauri equalized eight minutes later.
As the game looked set to end in a stalemate in regular time, Sochaux’s Irish striker Bernard Williams hit what proved to be the winner in the 88th minute, breaking Racing hearts. Having been pipped to two different trophies by Sochaux, a rivalry with the Montbeliard club developed naturally. Once again though, the success in France was short-lived because Alsace would once again be at the center of the World.
The outbreak of World War II and the eventual surrender of the French government meant another change of borders for Alsace. In 1940, they were incorporated into the Greater German Reich and combined into the German state of Baden. The club was then renamed again and placed into another new competition. Entered as Rasensportclub Straßburg (note the creative faithfulness to RCS,) in the German Gauliga they competed in the Alsace League of Germany’s regional setup.
Alsace was not satisfied with simply capitulating or surrendering their culture to a foreign power though. During a match against a team that represented the SS, the RC Strasbourg players wore blue tops, white shorts and red socks in clear French defiance of Nazi occupation. In that time, their star striker Oskar Rohr, the German goalscorer from the Cup Final earlier, went and served in the French Foreign Legion rather than return to Nazi Germany for service.
This demonstration of courage is truly inspiring and he was eventually arrested for his trouble and returned to Germany. The rest of Alsace was not so lucky. In 1942, the Wehrmacht began forcibly conscripting Alsatians. 130,000 Alsatians were sent to the Eastern Front to fight for Nazi Germany. In that group was one Alphonse Wenger.
Alphonse Wenger was among the lucky few Alsatians who returned unharmed and uncaptured from the fight in Russia after World War II ended. Upon his return he settled down and in 1949 his wife, Louise Wenger, gave birth to a son, Arsene Charles Ernest Wenger. Wenger spent his early days playing football in the village teams in his hometown of Duttlenheim but he was born in Strasbourg and was always one of the most famous Alsatian sons. In so doing, he is my best example of an Alsatian.
He grew up speaking Alsatian German in a village that is nearer the hometowns of famous Swabian managers Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel than it is to Paris. He is eminently cosmopolitan in a way that is neither French nor German but suggestive of a culture that transcends either nationality.
Wenger was a manager of French clubs first whose greatest tactical inspiration was the Borussia Monchengladbach teams of the 1970s. He feels as comfortable in London and Tokyo as he did in Paris or Berlin. This to me captures what makes Alsace, and by extension, RC Strasbourg so special. The nation does not matter, the culture and the character do. So as Arsene grew up in postwar France, so did RC Strasbourg.
With RCS returned to their normal name, and domestic French competition, they continued to enjoy life back in France’s top flight. As a Ligue 1 title continued to evade the club, they were still chasing Coupe de France glory. They were denied on their first return to the Final in 1947 when LOSC Lille defeated them 2-0 courtesy of a first-minute goal from Roger Vandooren that Racing never recovered from.
In 1951 though Strasbourg brought home that coveted prize from Paris as they defeated US Valenciennes 3-0. The three goals included one from Strasbourg-born Raymond Krug. An Alsatian helping launch celebrations for Alsace’s club at a time when the region was still deep in the throes of postwar recovery is the type of thing that movies get made about. Not all of the French saw it that way though.
In 1966, Racing defeated FC Nantes 1-0 to reclaim the Coupe de France and TV reporter Thierry Roland said that “The Cup is leaving France.” This comment understandably had Alsatians furious. They had not asked to be the subject and goal of wars or the bargaining chip between major powers. They had embraced their French identity despite a German history and yet they were still met with skepticism and calls of “outsider” from those in their most recent national home. It was Alsatians though who would guide the club through its best-ever period.
The 1970s saw some turmoil for Racing but as the decade ended, a talented crop of Alsatian youngsters came through the club’s academy and in 1976, the club earned its status as a top-flight club back. They claimed the French Division 2 title by a single point over Monaco and as they re-entered life at the top, they looked to a son of Strasbourg to lead them. Gilbert Gress had been a significant player for Racing who was a favorite of supporters.
He was born in Neudorf, a truly local player for Racing. He also was the first Frenchman to ever play in the newly formed German Bundesliga for Vfb Stuttgart, and he brought with him some rather new concepts to French football. At a time when most clubs had defenders defend and attackers attack, he had his defenders join the attack and he demanded his forwards press the opposition.
His return to Racing as their leader was a time for Alsace’s club to thrive and they did just that. Gress’ first season in charge in 1977-78, Racing finished third, an astonishing accomplishment for a newly promoted side, although they were actually outdone this time by Monaco who won the title that year. Yes, a newly promoted side won the title.
Ignoring that, Gress’ Racing side was built around very solid home performances and by virtue of that they qualified for European competition. Their first season in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) they rode good home performances against Sweden’s Elfsborg and Hibernian from Scotland but they stumbled against German side MSV Duisburg and were bounced in the 3rd Round. But this season was not defined by European performance in the end.
In the league, it was home performances that were supporting Racing’s climb up the Division 1 table. Unlike their rivals like Nantes and St. Etienne, their success was built on a solid defensive foundation, rather than a high-flying attack because they knew trying to go toe-to-toe with the clubs at the top of the French game would be suicide. The team conceded only 28 goals across their 38 games and only dropped 8 points of a possible 57 available in home matches, winning all but 4.
The approach frustrated those other clubs but in the end, Racing Club de Strasbourg were the Champions of France. They made their way back to Strasbourg from Lyon, where the final match of the season was played, and they were greeted by raucous fans at every single train station in Alsace. Among that group of players, and the main target of Gilbert Gress’ mentorship, was Arsene Wenger, who was coming toward the end of his playing career. This victory was for Alsace and by in large accomplished by Alsatians. The League was leaving France for Alsace this time.
In the 80s, 90s and into the new millennium, Strasbourg, unfortunately, was completely up and down. They struggled for form, Gress had been sacked in 1980 in controversial circumstances, and the promising young Wenger was off to Nancy. The club’s ownership changed hands a number of times during this period and it became a bit distant from its Alsatian roots. They were up and down between leagues and struggled for form but the real instability came in the 2010s.
Following relegation from Ligue 1 in 2006 and subsequent relegation to the Championnat National in 2009, Racing were in big trouble. The financial toll of the relegations had put them on an extremely tenuous footing and in 2011 they entered total liquidation. Fortunately, the ownership was able to avoid liquidation at the cost of entering play in the 5th tier of French Football. This was the lowest low that Racing had experienced and from here, it was time to work to reclaim their spot.
Promotion to the CFA to the 4th Tier in 2012 was followed immediately by promotion to the National again in 2013. The professional ranks of Ligue 2 beckoned and in 2016, under the direction of Thierry Laurey, Racing earned its place in the professional ranks back. This was a new Racing as they rose from the ashes of their previous mistakes. They won the Ligue 2 title on the back of Khalid Boutaib’s 20 goals, a French-born Moroccan. This was not the success of the Neudorf-born local but it was a testament to the Alsatian attitude.
The league did not leave France and the success of Boutaib was the success of Alsace. This League Title and the promotion that came along with it, in many ways demonstrates how Alsace embraces those that embrace it. And since their return to Ligue 1, this model has taken them back into the reaches of the League that they previously occupied.
A 15th-place finish in 2017-18 secured survival and gave them the platform to go on and win the Coupe de La Ligue the following year, defeating EA Guingamp on penalties in the Final. They took down Lille, Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux on their way and this felt like a platform to go on and progress into the upper reaches of Ligue 1. Unfortunately in the 2020-21 season, they struggled but when Alsatians returned to the stands in 2021-22, and with former player, and Alsatian, Marc Keller as the President and new manager Julien Stephan on the sideline, Racing roared back to life.
These efforts of the club went in parallel to Alsace adopting some policies to keep the Alsatian culture and language front and center. The approach of ABCM-Zweisprachigkeit, where Alsatian and standard German are being taught in Alsatian schools along with French is giving Alsatians another route to remain connected to the culture of their home. These efforts, along with the increased prominence of RC Strasbourg, are bringing Alsace back into the international consciousness.
Fueled primarily by goals from Ludovic Ajorque, Habib Diallo and Kevin Gameiro, forwards from Reunion in the Indian Ocean, a French territory, Senegal, a former French colony in Western Africa, and Northern France, Strasbourg finished sixth and narrowly missed out on European football by three points — today, they sit 19th in the Ligue 1 table with a measly 11 points in 17 matches.
The Alsatians accepted these strikers all as members of their greater community. Despite the fact that the club may not be led by Alsatians in all facets, it is representative of Alsace. As a club that has existed between nations, maintained a cultural identity and still opened its doors to those outside of their culture, RC Strasbourg Alsace can be a role model for all of us.
By: Phil Baki / @PhilTalksFooty
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Hugo Pfeiffer / Icon Sport