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FEATURE | Saving Strasbourg – from the brink of extinction to a return to Ligue 1

It is nine years since Strasbourg last kicked a ball in the top flight of French football. That season, Lyon won the title thanks to the goal-scoring exploits of a young Karim Benzema, who finished top scorer with 20 league goals, whilst Paris Saint-Germain managed to pull out of the bottom three with a game to go, finishing the campaign in 16th. In the years that have since elapsed, PSG have trebled the number of Ligue 1 titles they have won and are now the dominant force in the domestic game, whilst Benzema, at 29, looks set to enter the twilight years of his career with an honours list that could rival some of the game’s finest.

But no change has been as dramatic, or as remarkable, as Strasbourg’s journey to hell and back. Over those nine years the Alsatians have plummeted through the divisions, finding themselves marooned in the fifth tier, before climbing their way back up to the big time. The newspaper Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, in a piece written ahead of their do-or-die clash against Bourg-en-Bresse at the end of last season, equated their return to that of the resurrection of Christ. Having stared down the barrel of total liquidation, this is by no means an overstatement.

Nobody could have foreseen that Strasbourg, one of France’s most iconic clubs, would find themselves plying their trade in the CFA2 Group C, just four years after the end of that 2007-2008 season. They were an established name, one of six teams to have won all three of France’s major trophies, and whilst they did end that campaign by entering the records books again but for all the wrong reasons, an 11-game losing streak, the longest in post-war French football history, they had already shown the potential for a swift return.

A spirited showing against a Champions League chasing Marseille outfit on the last day of the season, where they pushed Les Olympiens all the way in a 4-3 thriller, seemed to suggest that a recurrence of the norm was on the cards, that they would bounce back. But that run of form would ultimately provide the symbolism for what was to follow, as Le Racing plunged into Ligue 2, and following further chronic mismanagement, to depths far beyond that. o ignored

Strasbourg’s demise has served as a warning for clubs across the world about the perils of modern football’s greatest scourge, that of meddling, unqualified and quite frankly erratic ownership. For Le Racing, following years of financial insecurity, things came to a head during the chaotic 2009-2010 season. Philippe Genestet, the club’s majority shareholder, had stepped down as chairman following the club’s unsuccessful attempt at promotion the previous season.

But despite his new back-benched position, he remained prominent in the club’s affairs and came to very public blows with new manager and club favourite Gilbert Gress. Despite being in the job for a little under two months, Gress was removed after the opening day defeat to Châteauroux after he declared Genestet a ‘criminal,’ with the former chairman then going on to sell his majority stake in December.

What was to come next made the Gress-Genestet affair look positively tranquil. Under the apocalyptic ownership of Jafar Hilali, incompetence was taken to a whole other level. The new owner showed his hand early. In a season directly impacted by both the sales of key personnel and chaos behind the scenes, Hilali astonishingly asked Rolland Courbis, the former Marseille coach, to pick the team over the head of manager Pascal Janin for Strasbourg’s vital final day relegation showdown, once again against Châteauroux. They lost, and Strasbourg were relegated to the French third tier, the National, for the first time in their history.

Dubbed the Ubu king by the local press, Hilali attempted to ban the supporters group UB90 for displaying banners protesting his ownership. That same season, as Le Racing miraculously chased promotion in the final weeks of the season, Hilali declared that Racing’s final National division game of the season in 2011 was to be played behind closed doors, due to their chances of gaining promotion. To add to the supporters’ despair, Hilali suggested arriving by helicopter to the game, in order to avoid their wrath. o ignored

In the meantime, the club’s spiralling debt remained unchecked, and the scale of the problem was revealed when the club was presented to the DNCG, the League’s Financial Control Board, which uncovered a deficit of €5 million. Faced with total liquidation, the club were relegated to the fourth tier, (CFA), and Hilali threatened to close the club if a buyer could not be found by 30th June 2011.

Strasbourg had hit rock bottom. There can be no denying that for the supporters of Le Racing, and indeed for the region, Strasbourg’s demise felt like a death in the family. Professional football had been brutally stripped from the region, and the iconic club, the club where a certain Arsène Wenger pulled on the shirt during the memorable late 1970s, was thought to be lost.

There are many heroes who helped to save Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace, but the brothers Keller, François and Marc, are perhaps two of the leading lights in a story that turned the greatest of despair into the greatest of triumphs. Thanks, in part, to these two former Racing players, not only did Strasbourg continue to function at amateur level, but go on to achieve four promotions in six years.

It was Frédéric Sitterlé who originally stepped in to save the team back in 2011 following Hilali’s tyrannical threat to close the club. After lengthy negotiations with the Football Federation in August of that year, Strasbourg were subsequently admitted to the fifth tier of French football as an amateur side. But whilst the club’s body collapsed, it’s heart kept beating. François Keller, the club’s then reserve team coach, set about putting together a side to challenge at amateur level despite the uncertainty regarding the very existence of the club.

At first, he had to rely on the kids during a pre-season overshadowed by the fact that they did not know in which division they would compete. But, helped by the likes of David Ledy, the only former professional to stay at the club, and permission from the council to continue to use their home ground, La Meinau, Strasbourg were able put down the foundation stones for a return by being able to attract amateurs from as high as the third tier, enticed by the prospect of playing for a club that remained so well supported.

Support was the key for Strasbourg. When in 2012 the club looked at risk again, Marc Keller, leading a group of local investors that included the local authority, purchased the club for the symbolic price of a single euro, inheriting a deficit that remained at €1.4 million. The President of the Grand Est region, Philippe Richert, also played his part, encouraging the local community to support Keller, offering €600,000 subsidy of a sports budget that stood at €3m. It was in honour of this Alsatian support that ‘Alsace’ was added to the club’s name.

In the stands, the people of Strasbourg continued to get behind their team. Despite playing in the fifth tier, Strasbourg set a new average attendance record, a staggering 6400. The following season, against rivals FC Mulhouse, 20,044 turned out to support the side. They were duly rewarded for their loyalty, back-to-back promotions under François catapulted the team back into the third tier, with their second promotion being achieved with the club spending only the final 48 minutes of the season at the summit of the division.

After such heady success, they were brought crashing back down to earth during the 2013-2014 season. Despite the return of club legend of Jacky Duguépéroux to the helm in March, Strasbourg finished in the relegation places of the third tier. But the tide was turning; Luzenac, promoted to Ligue 2, were unable to turn professional, and were then subsequently demoted. Salvation, and a richly deserved second chance, for a rejuvenated Strasbourg.

Le Racing took stock, bringing in players who remain with the club to this day, including Ernest Seka, Stéphane Bahoken, Abdallah Ndour, Jérémy Blayac, Dimitri Liénard and Jérémy Grimm. Under ‘Dugué’, the club narrowly missed out on promotion the following season, before lifting the title in 2016 – returning to the professional game. o ignored

As a sign of how far things had changed, when Keller told club legend Duguépéroux that his contract would not be renewed despite achieving promotion, the former player and now three times manager left in good grace. The project came first, and in his place came Thierry Laurey, appointed due to his experience of the second division. Alongside head of recruitment Loïc Désiré, and led by potent forward Khalid Boutaib, Strasbourg pulled off what no-one, especially not Keller, could have possibly foreseen, a back-to-back title win, in the most dramatic of season finales.

Strasbourg had become the touchstone for illustrating what can happen when a football club falls into the wrong hands. They were the banner that was hoisted when things turned awry, “this could be us,” would sit next to a name that was thought to have been reduced to dust; they were gone, and soon to be forgotten. But now, after years of hard work and stunning success, Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace have a new footnote next to their name.

Regardless of what happens next season in Ligue 1, they are now a beacon of hope as much as they symbolise the perils of mismanagement. They offer belief to many facing bleak and uncertain futures, one that says, “that could be us,” not only as emblematic of great demise, but also for the possibility of a great revival, showing that no matter how desperate the circumstances, it is possible to come back from the brink.

P.R.

 

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