By Panos Bletsos
They were only promoted back to Ligue 1 as recently as in 2009 and last year they barely managed to escape relegation by just three points. Originally founded in 1919 as Stade Olympique, they have changed their name five times, but only have two Cup wins to show for their efforts. So how is it that Montpellier are overshadowing all of France’s household names this year?
I believe I have stressed out before that the French top-flight is one of the most competitive, most “democratic” leagues in the world. Since its inception, even on an amateur level back in 1893, no less than 29 clubs have won the title (!), some of them hardly remembered today - or even worse. Roubaix, for example, crowned national champions five times in the first decade of the 20th century and once more as Roubaix – Tourcoing right after World War II, were dissolved in 1995 due to financial problems.
One might disagree, stressing out the Olympique Lyonnais unprecedented success of dominating Ligue 1 for seven years in a row up to 2008. That’s true. But it’s also true that right before that sheer demonstration of power France’s top-tier had seen nine different champions in succession, while three different sides have claimed the trophy in as many seasons immediately after OL’s fall from grace (Girondins de Bordeaux, Olympique de Marseille, Lille). Could it be that this is Montpellier’s turn?
For almost 35 years now, since they were promoted from the third division in 1978, Montpellier have spent their time between Le Championnat’s top two levels. The longest they managed to stay up was a credible 13 years in a row, between 1987 and 2000, at a time when their squad featured the likes of Laurent Blanc (surprisingly the club’s all-time leading scorer), Roger Milla, Carlos Valderrama, Júlio César (the Brazilian sweeper later impressed with Juventus Turin and Borussia Dortmund), Aljoša Asanović, Franck Sauzée and a certain Éric Cantona. It’s therefore no wonder that this is the time their fans remember most fondly.
Montpellier won the ’89-’90 Coupe, their last major honour, under former player Michel Mézy, reached the final again four years later and also clinched a club record third place in the ’87-’88 Ligue 1 campaign. They also enjoyed their crack at the international stage. Competing in the ’90-‘91 Cup Winners’ Cup they consecutively knocked out two sides fresh from their coronation as European champions, PSV Eindhoven and Steaua. In fact, they actually thrashed the Romanians 8-0 on aggregate before going down in the quarters to eventual winners Manchester United, despite holding them to a credible 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
Selling Their Way to Success
That star-studded squad was disassembled following relegation to Ligue 2 after the turn of the millennium. Montpellier came back up, went back down and was promoted again, all within eight years – but now it seems they’re here to stay. With the colourful Louis Nicollin at the presidential helm since 1974 (!), the club has invested in scouting and youth development, as it simply lacks the resources of Marseille and Lyon – not to mention Paris Saint-Germain, whose squad today is worth an estimated USD 272 million compared to their own 84 million. Over the past decade or so, Montpellier has earned more than 30 million in transfer balance and still managed to stay competitive on the field, in spite of selling a number of their best players (Toifilou Maoulida, Bill Tchato, Habib Bamogo, Víctor Hugo Montaño, Tino Costa, Emir Spahić).
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes – and that’s exactly what Nicollin is doing. In 2009, right after Rolland Courbis had guided Montpellier back to the top flight, the boss hired the right man for the job: René Girard. Having spent nearly 11 years involved with France’s youth scheme, the former international midfielder returned to club training with the ambition to develop some more academy graduates and help the team evolve at the same time. A tough-looking task by any means, but he’s come through. Although they exited the Coupe de la Ligue as early as October, Montpellier are now odds-on favourites to reach the Cup last-four (taking on third-tier GFCO Ajaccio in the quarterfinals) and are sitting pretty in second place of the championship, having enjoyed the view from the summit for nine weeks. Infact, Girard’s charges have only slipped outside the top two for a single week since the beginning of the tournament, back in July, mostly taking advantage of their “De la Mosson” fortress, where they’ve won 11 league games out of 13 and only succumbed to big-spending PSG.
Even though their 2011-’12 budget of just 44 million is one of the lowest in Ligue 1 (Auxerre and Sochaux – Montbéliard, both languishing in the relegation zone, have an annual account of 52 million each), Girard is delivering the goods. Including the extremely gifted winger Karim Aït-Fana, who only returned from a long-term injury two months ago to feature in no more than eight matches in the course of this campaign, Montpellier is built around five home-grown youngsters (Younès Belhanda, Benjamin Stambouli, Rémy Cabella and captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa), none of them older than 22 and together with 23-year-old right back Garry Bocaly it’s that flock that keeps the team running.
Geoffrey Jourdren adds a safe pair of hands between the sticks, Brazilian centre back Hilton commands the defense, while Geoffrey Dernis and Joris Marveaux successfully support Chilean sensation Marco Estrada in the heart of the field. And then of course there is that man, Olivier Giroud. Somewhat of a late developer, the big centre forward enjoyed sporadic success playing in lower leagues for five years before Montpellier bought him from Tours in the summer of 2010. After scoring in his debut to earn his new side a Europa League victory at Hungarian outfit Győri he never looked back. Less than two years on he’s scored 34 times in 72 outings, has featured three times with the national side and has rocketed his market value beyond the 13 million mark. And he’s still only 25.
Champions League Comes to Town
So, what is Montpellier’s realistic goal this season? Since Lille did the League and Cup double last season (and they hadn’t won anything in 56 years before that!), their fans can still dream. With Saint-Germain, Lyon, Marseille and high-flying Stade Rennais still involved in the Coupe, Girard and his men will probably rely on a favourable semis draw to at least reach the final. In Le Championnat, however, their situation looks far better. With 12 rounds of matches to go they lie a single point behind PSG, but seven ahead of third-placed Lille and have also opened up an 11-point gap between them and fourth spot. That can virtually assure them of UEFA Champions League football for the first time ever. And that can’t be too bad, can it?
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