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Coupe de France Part 1

The money plumped in the game and the overall interest of football has made your average fan’s interest almost entirely focused on the league and the Champions’ League. A few years (decades) back, you had that special feeling that we called “the magic of the Cup”. It meant unfancied non-league teams who no one had ever heard of knocking out top-tier sides. This feeling is quite vivid in England for quite a lot of sides. For instance, Everton have the unfortunate habit of losing to lower division outfits such as Oldham, Macclesfield or Scunthorpe. In France, things are pretty similar.

The FA Cup was founded in the late 1800s and was football first competition ever invented. The French, doing things quite quickly for a change, came up with their own cup competition during the Great War in 1917. It was not created by the FFF (the current French FA) but by its predecessor (we do love to change institutional names for no reason): the CFI. Charles Simon was founder of many sporting associations in France in the early 1900s but he sadly died in the War. Henri Delaunay (the same one whose name is on the European Championships trophy) honored his memory by naming the French Cup after him. And so, on May 5th 1919, the first French Cup final took place at the Stade de la Légion Saint-Michel (or under its current name Stade de la rue Olivier-de-Serres) in front of a 2,000-strong crowd witnessing Olympique de Paris beating FC Lyon 3-0.

The amount of teams entering the competition naturally rose. The opening year, 48 clubs participated, 60 the second and 114 the third. From there on in, there was an exponential increase till WWII where the Cup still took place averaging 700-odd participants but, in 1941 and 1942, we saw a diminished amount with 236 and 469 teams entering the tournament respectively. After that, the increase resumed to this day with 7422 teams entering it this season (which, for the first time since 2001/02, was less than the previous season (7449 in 2010/11))

In the early days, games were actually being played at a neutral venue with a replay being planned if the teams drew. The similarity with the FA Cup ended in 1968 though with the introduction, from the round of 32 onwards, of two-legged ties (except the final which has always been played in a big Paris stadium, the Stade de France being the latest of 7 different stadiums having hosted the final) which is also implemented in the Spanish Copa Del Rey. Until then, 3 games were played to determine a winner and, if the teams were still at loggerheads, a coin was flipped to determine a winner. This rather unfair way to decide a winner ended after the 1966/67 semi-final between Lyon and Angoulême which Lyon won and went to win the final. If the two sides were still drawing after the two legs, a replay was to be played in a neutral venue. It was in 1970, at last, that penalty shoot-outs were used to separate the sides. The added neutral venue game ended in 1975 while the home leg/away leg system went on as late as 1989. Both were cancelled due to fixture congestion.

As stated previously, the final was never a two-legged affair (unlike in England between 1961 and 1966) but was subject to a replay in case of a draw. This outcome was completely abandonned in 1986 for extra-time and penalty shoot-outs. Still the first ever French Cup final won on shoot-outs was before that date. In 1982, in order to prepare for the forthcoming World Cup in Spain, the FFF decided that there would be no replay to the final and that the semi-finals will only be played over one leg. And so Paris Saint-Germain became the first team to win the trophy by beating Saint-Etienne 5-4 on penalty shoot-outs after a 2-2 draw.

The modern-day French Cup is organised pretty much like the English one with divisions being introduced as winter approches with the top-tier sides competing the first week of the year (slight difference being that, in England, it’s the top 2 divisions that enter at this particular level). Prior to this round (which sees 64 sides face off), 8 preliminary rounds are played from August to December.

Before getting into those rounds, a reminder of the French football pyramid is needed: Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 form the top 2 divisions and are 100% profesional. National is Division 3 (or “League One”) and is semi-profesional. France then has 2 regionalised divisions called CFA (Championnat de France Amateur) and CFA 2 who have 4 and 8 groups of 18 teams respectively (or less as French Football regulations are very strict and very often liquidate clubs for insufficient funds; Gueugnon suffered that fate last year). CFA is also the level where top-tier profesional clubs have their B teams competing (compared to Division 2 in Spain. England and Italy have a separate youth league). Then you have the Division d’Honneur who form divisions 6 to 10 and then the rest (not one of the rest made it after Christmas in the history of the competition).

The first round sees teams from “the rest” drawn between each other. Then all the other teams from higher divisions get drawn slowly but surely (except B teams of top-tier clubs obviously): Division d’Honneur enter Round 2, CFA 2 Round 3, CFA Round 4 and National Round 5. Then Round 6, nothing happens as Ligue 2 clubs only come into the frame in Round 7. Round 8 is pretty much like Round 6 where no bigger sides is introduced. Ligue 1 get into it in Round 9.

The rules for entering are thus: you have to be a fully licensed football club, pay the entering fee and have a stadium that fits the federation’s criteria. This last condition is a problem to many sides and will result in a change in venue if the stadium is deemed unfit (the same happens when unfancied sides make it to Ligue 1, they need to rent stands for the season otherwise their stadium is declared unfit and they have to relocate). You would think the tie would be reversed if the opponent’s stadium fits the bill but the game is instead played at the nearest decent ground to where the game was supposed to be played (for instance Sablé-sur-Sarthe/Paris Saint-Germain will be played at Le Mans’ ground and Luçon/Lyon will be played at Nantes’ home). The only case where the tie is reversed is when 2 divisions separate 2 sides. If the minnow is drawn away then the tie is reversed and the game is played at the Petit Poucet’s home (or close to its home).

Philip Bargiel

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