Saint-Etienne: A Sleeping Giant In Freefall
Founded in 1919 (now known as Association Sportive de Saint-Étienne Loire), the club based in the Rhone-Alps region is the joint record holder of the number of Ligue 1 titles. Les Verts have won ten titles, a number which Qatari-backed PSG equalled with their title victory last season.
The football club was founded by employees of a grocery store chain called Groupe Casino; the choice of their famous green kits was due to it being the primary colour of the aforementioned grocery store. Upon football becoming professional in France, in 1933 the club changed its name to AS St Etienne or ASSE as it is commonly known and was inserted into the second tier of French football. They gained promotion to the first division during the 1938-39 season under the stewardship of Englishman Teddy Duckworth.
Moving forward in the timeline, between the years 1956 – 1981 Les Verts secured their place in the history of French football by winning ten league titles, a record that has only just been equalled by PSG. The first of these titles came in the 1956-57 season where St. Etienne finished four points ahead of Lens. The next title was secured in the 1963-64 campaign, then a period of domestic dominance ensued as the club won the Ligue 1 title on four consecutive occasions from 1966-67 to 1969-70. After a three-year drought, the club had another burst of success as another three consecutive titles were won from 1973-1976.
In 1976 Les Stephanois also reached the final of the European Cup where they faced Bayern Munich, who were chasing their third European Cup win, at Hampden Park. The French Champions were narrowly defeated 1-0. The game began with Gerd Muller going on an incredible solo run after winning the ball back in his own half and finding the back of the net, the goal however was ruled out for offside.
Les Verts could breathe easy for a while, they had plenty of chances to score but ultimately failed to do so after hitting the woodwork on multiple occasions. In the 57th minute Bayern broke the deadlock as captain Franz Beckenbauer played a short free kick to Franz ‘Bulle’ Roth who found the back of the net.
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In 1981 the club won its final league title to date as captain Michel Platini lifted the Ligue 1 trophy. What immediately followed can only be described as a downward trajectory of epic proportions. The year after their final league title win saw long-time president Roger Rocher jailed for his role in a financial scandal. Unsurprisingly the club suffered relegation to Ligue 2 in 1984.
The club returned to the top flight in 1986, where they would retain their status there for a decade despite the ongoing financial insecurities. In 1996, the club was relegated back to the second tier and bounced back to Ligue 1 in 1999. The following year there was yet another scandal as two players were found to be using fake passports – after an investigation that showed some staff members were involved in the acquisition of the forged documents, the club was docked seven points and relegated.
Following another three seasons in Ligue 2, St Etienne once again returned to the topflight for the 2004/05 campaign. They arrived back in the top division with a new philosophy to which the club’s investment in youth was central. The 04/05 squad consisted of a core group of players who had either emerged through the academy (Bafetimbi Gomis and Loic Perrin) or were shrewd investments in quality young French players (Blaise Matuidi and Dimitri Payet). Perrin, who stayed with his boyhood club throughout his entire career and is considered one of the best players to wear the green of St. Etienne in recent years.
After maintaining its position in Ligue 1, the year 2013 saw Les Verts secure their first domestic trophy for over thirty years as they won the Coup de la Ligue. The following year saw the team secure a home victory against fierce rivals Olympique Lyonnais for the first time in twenty years.
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Moving forward a few years, the club secured a fourth-place finish in 2019, however, troubled times returned as the club was put up for sale the year after and the team battled relegation one again. After going on a ten-game winning streak St. Etienne secured survival for another year, but sadly, the following year saw the inevitable happen.
Les Verts struggled throughout the 2021/22 season, spending much of the campaign in the relegation zone, and were eventually sent back down to Ligue 2 after losing the relegation playoff to Auxerre. They currently sit rooted to the bottom of the second tier with 12 points in 17 matches due in large part to a horrific defensive record that has seen them concede 31 goals thus far.
Saint-Ètienne are a club rooted in history, and they have emerged as one of the most successful clubs in France and helped to develop the likes of Michel Platini, Laurent Blanc, Blaise Matuidi, Dimitri Payet and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Here are a few lesser-known players who have come before them and who made the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard roar:
In 1958, club legend and second all-time leading scorer Rachid Mekhloufi made the decision to sacrifice his playing career to go and join the fight for Algeria in their battle for independence from French rule. Mekhloufi and nine other players based in France made the choice to play football for the FLN Football Team (The National Liberation Front was leading the fight against French forces).
At 21 years old, the young Saint-Etienne player used his footballing skills to bring awareness to the ongoing battle between Algeria and its coloniser. This was incredibly brave as they were essentially playing for a country that did not fully exist yet (when France colonised Algeria it became classed as part of the nation of France meaning in the eyes of the French the nation of Algeria ceased to exist).
The FLN team won 65 matches in four years which meant that the Algerian cause could not be ignored as many fans who supported the players also made their voices heard in their wishes to see an independent Algeria. The war raged on and the players including Mekhloufi lost family members and friends to the intensely bloody battle. However, Mekhloufi himself stated that the experience of wearing the colours of Algeria and signing what would become the national anthem ‘couldn’t be bought with all the gold in the world’.
Mekhloufi and his compatriots were celebrated as heroes as they continued to pay for the fLN until 1962 when Algeria achieved independence. Some people may criticise the politicisation of football, but no one can deny that Mekhloufi’s decision to use his talent to protest French rule was incredibly brave and no doubt instilled an even higher sense of national pride in Algeria.
Striker Dominique Rocheteau was known as L’Ange Vert – The Green Angel. He was given this nickname as he was famously never booked throughout his career. Rocheteau was part of the team that lost in the 1976 European Cup final. Upon their return to France, Robert Herbin’s men were welcomed as heroes. French fans frequently comment that had the goalposts been round instead of square, they would have won as Jacques Santini and Dominique Bathenay both hit the frame of the goal.
By: Bethany Limb / @bethlimb
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images / Hurlton / Franck Fife/ L’Equipe / AFP