The Coupe de France semi-finals kick off midway through next week, with fourth-tier side FC Versailles the surprise package after an incredible run which has notably seen them knock out Ligue 2 leaders Toulouse.
The club from the Paris region face an altogether different prospect on Tuesday though, as they gear up to clash with Christophe Galtier’s Nice, who are currently third in Ligue 1.
Manager Youssef Chibhi and director Jean-Luc Arribart spoke to Get French Football News‘ Raphaël Jucobin ahead of their historic fixture, detailing the team’s preparation as well as the club’s wider plans for the future as part of an ambitious project.
Chibhi has been in charge of the club since 2014, and has this season guided his team to the top of its regional division.
Arribart, a former defender in his playing days, is chiefly known for his work as a pundit for Canal+, and took charge of the club at the start of the season. Beyond the high-profile cup run, he aims to develop the club to a professional standard and build up a team and infrastructure that can inspire a rise up the divisions.
GFFN: The city of Versailles is known across the world for its royal palace, do you think you can change that image a bit with your impressive cup run?
Youssef Chibhi: We won’t be able to compete with the palace and it’s not our wish. We have a magnificent town, full of history, culture and art. What we hope to do with this cup run is to show that there’s also a town next to the palace, with people living here, with sports being played. We hope that this run will allow us to show that there are people in Versailles who like team sports. But the palace will always remain the town’s best shop window, maybe even that of France.
GFFN: How would you describe the importance of such a run to an English audience familiar with the FA Cup?
YC: I compared it with the FA Cup not long ago with my players, asking them what impact it would have on them if they reached the FA Cup semi-final, or that of Spain or Italy. I know it has a bit more resonance, because the FA Cup is so important for the English, it’s a special competition. The French Cup is also important, it’s a competition where everything is possible, where small teams play against big ones, you get upsets happening, and it’s a cup which denotes a lot of important values, such as solidarity, combativeness and hard work, which we appreciate.
GFFN: How are you approaching the game compared to your usual fixtures?
YC: Calmly. The previous cup tie against Bergerac was against two teams at the same level, with a semi-final at stake. If you lose against another amateur club, it can leave a mark. Whereas here, the fact that we’re coming up against Nice, in a way, the pressure is on Nice. We’ve signed off on our cup run, even if we’re going to prepare the game by looking for the win. But we’re approaching it calmly, with serenity. As the game gets progressively closer, the excitement will increase, but for now we’re calm, we still have time ahead of us. The idea is to play the game at the right time, not too early, not too late.
GFFN: Do you think that by moving up the divisions the club can forge its own identity, away from the palace?
Jean-Luc Arribart: We’re two games away from the Europa League [laughs]. If we win the Europa League, we get to the Champions League within two years. Obviously those two games aren’t a done deal though!
But we’re happy that there’s finally something other than the palace going on at Versailles. Obviously there are other good things happening outside of that and football. But even at Versailles – which is a multi-sports and multi cultural town – football has its place because it’s the most popular sport. All that was needed was a team that could organise and structure itself, gives itself the means and be ambitious. I think we’re giving all of that to the supporters, and we’re starting an adventure which I think will be very nice, and which we’ll obviously try to build with them, with partners who will join our project, who we’re going to canvass very soon. We’re going to create a real football club to strive towards the professional world
GFFN: You know English football well from your role as a pundit for French TV. Are there aspects of English football management which inspire you in your role at Versailles?
JA: It’s complicated, because they have means which we don’t have. There is one thing that strikes me which I admire, it’s their expertise for marketing, for organisation, for getting people to the stadium. They’re making people want to spend for their club. You see the impact with people who have the club’s logo tattooed on their skin, the support runs in the family. For them the league is more important than the Champions League. The priority is first to beat the local rival, then do well in the league, and if possible win it when you have the means and ambition, and only after that do you think of the Champions League.
They have a base of supporters who are historically behind the club – we saw that series on Sunderland which was fantastic – when you see those people who laugh, who cry, who go through every emotional state by following their club – their whole week depends on the match result. They live through their club, it’s their lifeblood. We’re not quite there yet at Versailles, but we’re going to try and get inspired by it
GFFN: How do you plan to inspire that at Versailles?
JA: It’s going to be little by little. We’re first going to try to give the players better conditions and infrastructure to get the most out of them and progress in the sporting sense. Then it’s the results which will decide the speed of our project and the consistency of it. But we’re going to give ourselves the means to grow and structure the club efficiently.