When Fourth-tier Calais Came Within Inches of Winning the Coupe De France

After their founding in 1974 following a merger between Racing Club de Calais and Union Sportive, Calais Racing Union FC would spend a quarter of a decade bouncing around the amateur leagues, and they found themselves in the fourth tier of French football when the 1999/00 season rolled around, having posted losses of £200,000 the previous season. Their team featured dock workers, social workers, shopkeepers, gardeners and electricians, most of whom played for the club without receiving any pay.


Based in one of the poorest regions in France, Calais RUFC were a little-known club until the turn of the century, defeating two amateur sides and one semi-professional outfit to reach the Round of 64 of the Coupe de France, where Lille awaited them. Les Dogues were 35 years removed from their most recent major title, but they were nevertheless a fully operational second-tier side with two Ligue 1 championships to their name as well as five French Cups.


One of the rules of the Coupe de France is that, whenever a side faces off against a team ranked two tiers or lower than them, the lower-ranked side gets to host the match, irrespective of the stage of the tournament. The tiny Stade Julien-Denis witnessed a 1-1 draw, with Calais prevailing 7-6 on penalties before easily dispatching fifth-tier Langon-Castet. Calais would come across yet another Ligue 2 side in the Round of 16: Cannes.


Since their small stadium had already outgrown the importance of the tie, the Stade Félix-Bollaert in Lens was designated as Calais’ new home ground for the cup games. Another penalty victory against Cannes saw the amateur outfit gain nationwide recognition, which grew immensely after they beat Ligue 1 side Strasbourg in the quarter-finals. The next day, their manager Ladislas Lozano was given a standing ovation when he dined at the famous Parisian restaurant Fouquet’s. However, Calais’s next opponents were none other than Bordeaux, the reigning French champions.


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Despite the whole nation secretly supporting Calais as one of football’s biggest underdogs, their task would cause even Hercules to run away in fear. Undaunted, the amateurs shocked the champions, winning 3-1 in extra time. The shock was also felt in the Calais’ dugout, where manager Lozano, whose family had fled persecution in Franco’s Spain, suffered a minor heart attack. Three days in the hospital and a call from President Jacques Chirac later, and he was ready to rejoin the team in preparation for the final against Nantes.


At the Stade de France, Calais received less than 20,000 seats, from the 80,000 capacity, but many locals travelled to Paris just to be near their team. Meanwhile, TV channels and newspapers were putting their usual impartiality aside and were firmly on the side of the underdogs. After 34 minutes, it seemed that the giant killers would claim another victim, as Jerome Dutitre opened the scoring. However, future Manchester City and Newcastle player Antoine Sibierski levelled the scoring in the 50th minute before killing off the fairytale with a 90th-minute penalty.


After the game, the Calais captain was invited to lift the trophy alongside his Nantes counterpart and Chirac called the team to tell them that they are the real winners. Six years later, Calais would go on yet another impressive run, progressing through eight rounds and reaching the Coupe de France quarterfinals, where they would lose 1-0 via an 88th-minute goal from Frédéric Da Rocha, who secured victory for…you guessed it, Nantes.


On September 27, 2008, the club played their first match in the new Stade de l’Épopée, losing 4-1 to Laval in a Championnat National (third tier) match — a sign of things to come. Calais were relegated at the end of the season which would have resulted in them playing in the CFA, only for the Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion, French football’s financial watchdog, to instead relegate them to the CFA 2 due to administrative reasons.


Calais would proceed to enjoy a successful season in the fifth division, breaking the attendance record for a CFA 2 game and winning Group A, thus qualifying to compete in the CFA in 2010/11. However, on June 3, they were placed into liquidation by the Boulogne central court and subsequently denied promotion, winning their group once again only to be denied promotion by the Fédération Française de Football. They would remain there until 2013/14 when they were promoted to the fourth tier as one of the runners-up, where their stay would be brief.


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They finished bottom of their group in the 2016/17 season and were relegated, having already had seven points deducted for various reasons throughout the season. The FFF gave them an Administrative relegation, forcing them to spend the 2017/18 season at the Regional level — at best. Calais dissolved in September 2017 after 43 years of existence due to financial issues, but they would commemorate their glorious cup run by publishing an exhibition of the letters and faxes sent to Lozano by fans as locals poured in to remember the season of their dreams.


A northern port city that overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, Calais remain one of France’s most impoverished urban hubs, with almost half of its 75,000 inhabitants earning less than £5,000 a year and a 17% unemployment rate in 2000, but their residents will never forget those magical few months at the turn of the century when their amateur football club went toe-to-toe with French football’s top guns and allowed them to dream.


Today, the successor of the club — Grand Calais Pascal FC — plays in France’s sixth tier in front of a 12,000-capacity stadium whose name pays homage to one of the greatest underdog stories of the 106-year history of the Coupe de France: The Stade de l’Epopee — The Stadium of the Epic.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Barrington Coombs – EMPICS / PA Images