Montpellier make their debut in the Champions League on September 18 against Arsenal who bought the French club’s top scorer Olivier Giroud this summer. As LAURE JAMES reports, while the rugby-loving city is not a hotbed of football the France striker is a class act.
MONTPELLIER’S success is impossible to overestimate. Indeed, it cannot be justified in terms of figures. For once, established parallels between big budgets and silverware do not apply.
The club had never won the domestic title before, with a third-place finish in 1988 their previous best effort. Their average attendance is eighth highest in a league of 20 and their propensity to spend is even less favourable. They have only the 14th highest budget in the French League.
Millionaire (or richer) consortiums are a relatively new phenomenon in France but welcomed by LFP, the league’s governing body who long to see the country once again challenging at the top level, namely the Champions League.
What they had never bargained for was a small, provincial club devoid of any point to prove racing to the top of the division. And staying there. Suddenly Montpellier could cling to a real achievement: a league title, a place in the Champions League, a revenue stream, a star on their chest and a buoyant future.
Montpellier is not a football city. It never has been. Culturally aware, spiced with a greater number of theatre and concert venues per capita than anywhere else in France, the fastest-growing metropolis in the Languedoc region is also home to a young, liberally-minded well-educated population. So, given the magnitude of the rugby team, are Rene Girard’s men criminally under-supported because 98 per cent are egg chasers? No. From experience of the city’s magnificently varied make-up, a little more than half follow rugby while a third are either profiting from their art-house cinema membership or fiercely parading Moroccan flags in areas of deprivation. The rest may be heard, albeit louder than ever before, to be crying “allez, allez!” from Avenue de Heidelberg.
The next, already festering question is whether rising to become champions of France will also prove to be a kiss of death. Will the squad, following more exits of note than acquisitions during the transfer window, be cannon-fodder on the Champions League stage?
Losing top scorer Olivier Giroud, destined to emerge as a household name after signing a significant four-year deal with Arsenal, represents more than the sacrifice of 21 goals in a trophy-winning season. Erudite and charming, youthful and an epicurean, Giroud rebuffs football stereotypes and instead exemplifies the city of Montpellier’s popularity – and population. Crediting his father for developing both his superlative taste in wines and interest in buying up Pic St Loup vineyards, the striker embraces life’s finery. He illustrates why Joe Cole became a Francophile and achieves, with perfect grace and humility, what Joey Barton [on loan to Olympique Marseille] can only plagiarise.
We must also consider manager Rene Girard’s future. Is he likely to be prised away given the job he’s done? Or will he remain at the head of a club’s coaching pyramid which also boasts academy success and a strong scouting network which has the ability to spot a bargain?
Discussions on whether the future will bring minor disintegration rather than sustained prowess are unlikely to trouble Montpellier fans. The championship has brought with it a recognition, at least throughout Europe, upon which it is impossible to place a value. It feels like a distant acquaintance remembering your name. It sparks a sense of pride and validates your obsession, your adoration – not as if it were needed, of course.
Fanaticism, like true love, can wilt as quickly as it deepens or fold as inconspicuously as it cements. But it never really disappears. And now, from afar, my team are champions.
From LIFE’S A PITCH – The Passions Of The Press Box edited by Michael Calvin (Integr8 Books, £10.99). The book is dedicated to the memory of Danny Fulbrook, chief football writer of the Daily Star and a member of the FWA’s national committee. Laure James, who is based in Belfast, is tri-lingual, having both English and French heritage. She contributes regularly to the Daily Mail, Sky Sports and talkSPORT.