Any football fan brought up in England is taught from an early age that the FA Cup is the greatest knockout competition in the world.
This isn’t true. If you’re only going to follow one domestic knockout tournament closely throughout the season, the best option is found across the Channel.
The Coupe de France is more thrilling, more fiercely contested and captures the imagination more vividly than the FA Cup. The latest piece of evidence is available to anyone who glances at the fixtures taking place around the continent next week.
On Tuesday, National (France’s third division) sides Les Herbiers and Chambly face off in the Coupe de France semi-finals. The following night, tournament favourites Paris Saint-Germain take on fellow Ligue 1 side Caen in the second last-four tie. In other words, two semi-professional outfits have made it all the way to the semi-finals of France’s premier cup competition in the same season.
This sort of romance and giant-killing glory is what the FA Cup purports to be all about – but rarely actually is. In contrast, it’s become commonplace in France for smaller clubs to make it to the latter stages of the tournament.
Over the last 20 editions since 1999, 10 clubs playing below the top two professional divisions have reached the last four. In 2000, fourth-division amateurs Calais provided arguably the greatest story in the competition’s history when they reached the final, only losing to a last-minute penalty against Ligue 1 Nantes. En route to the final – played in front of 78,586 fans at Stade de France – the team from the northern port town knocked out top-flight sides Strasbourg and Bordeaux.
Since Calais’ moment in the spotlight, other third-tier teams Amiens (2001), Dijon (2004), Nimes (2005) and Gazelec Ajaccio (2011) have also reached the semi-finals. Fourth-division amateurs Quevilly did the same in 2010, and then incredibly repeated the feat 12 months later to prove it was no fluke. Montceau, also from the fourth tier, overcame Ligue 1 sides Lens and Bordeaux to reach the semi-finals in 2007.
Several theories have been put forward as to why the Coupe de France throws up so many shocks. One is that the difference in quality between professional and amateur clubs in France is relatively small. Only the top two divisions – 40 teams in total – are fully professional, which means amateur sides across the country are inevitably stocked with top-class graduates from France’s highly productive youth academies.
The main factor, though, is the very structure of the competition, which is designed to give underdogs a helping hand. If teams from two or more divisions apart are drawn against each other, the lower-ranking side is automatically given home advantage. This reduces the chances of a Ligue 1 or Ligue 2 team steamrollering amateur opponents, and in turn increases the likelihood of a giant-killing act.
And so it is that we find National sides Les Herbiers and Chambly going head-to-head for a place in the final. They’ve had unremarkable league seasons, sitting sixth and 13th respectively in France’s 17-team National – but both have raised their games for Coupe de France fixtures.
Les Herbiers’ run saw them win 3-0 at Ligue 2 side Auxerre in the last 16. In the quarter-finals they beat Ligue 2 Lens on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with the game moved to Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire in order to accommodate a crowd of 21,146. Chambly also claimed a Ligue 2 scalp when they defeated Chateauroux on penalties (after a 1-1 draw) in the last 32, before going one better by triumphing over Ligue 1 Strasbourg 1-0 in the quarter-finals.
Stade de la Beaujoire will also be the venue for next week’s semi-final. The attendance record for a game between two third-tier teams will be beaten – 29,000 tickets had already been sold by mid-March, with another 6,000 supporters expected to turn out.
The fact the match is being played in Nantes gives Les Herbiers, the more local of the two teams, a slight advantage. Les Herbiers are only two points above Chambly in the National league table, however, so there’s not much between the teams in terms of pure quality. The head-to-head results confirm this: Les Herbiers won 2-0 at Chambly in their first meeting last August, before Chambly triumphed 3-1 in the reverse fixture in January.
Les Herbiers’ side is packed with players who came through elite club youth academies – central defender/holding midfielder Valentin Vanbalaghem learned his trade at Lille, while midfielder Sebastien Flochon was on Lyon’s books and six-goal top scorer Ambroise Gboho grew up at Rennes. Several other members of their starting XI have first-team experience with Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs.
Chambly have stayed truer to their amateur roots. Founded as recently as 1989, they’ve climbed impressively through the lower reaches of the French football pyramid, and their current squad contains plenty of players who have only ever competed at amateur level. Favouring a five-man defence marshalled by 30-year-old Thibault Jaques, Bruno Luzi’s men will be difficult to break down.
Les Herbiers are the bookmakers’ favourites to go through, but Tuesday’s semi-final promises to be a fantastic occasion regardless of who triumphs. An even bigger and better prize awaits the winners: a place in the Coupe de France final, almost certainly against Paris Saint-Germain, in front of a sell-out 80,000 crowd at the Stade de France. What an event that will be – and what a tremendous reminder that the Coupe de France really is the world’s foremost knockout competition, no matter what supporters of the FA Cup will tell you.