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The magic of the Cup has never been more real and more magical than in this French Cup final on Tuesday. And the David vs. Goliath narrative, the story of the minnows against the giant, has never been so adequate either. When Les Herbiers, currently 11th in the French third division, walk out of the tunnel at the Stade de France on Tuesday evening, they will have the PSG players walking next to them. Things like this only happen in video games.
PSG against Les Herbiers is like a Ferrari 812 Superfast racing against a Ford Escort. There is no match. There is no way Les Herbiers could pull the biggest upset in football history. Even their manager Stephane Masala says it: “I will be honest. We have zero chance of winning. The real question is to know how long we can hold off. A few seconds? Meh. A few minutes? Not bad. An hour? No, that’s not planned. I just want us to look at Paris in the eyes” Masala told Le Parisien newspaper on Monday.
There are obviously no comparisons between the two clubs and the two cities. Paris the capital and its millions of habitants against Les Herbiers, a little town where 16,000 people live, not far from Nantes. The budget of PSG is 270 times bigger than their Cup opponent (€540 million compared to €2m). A Les Herbiers player earns an average salary of €2,500 a month when the Paris dressing room has an average wage of €700,000 a month! The Parc des Princes is always full with over 45,000 fans there every week. Les Herbiers have welcomed 1,674 fans per game at their Stade Massabielle this season.
It has actually not been a great season domestically for the Cup heroes by the way. They have only won nine league matches all season, which is as many as they have won in the Cup! They are only two points above the relegation zone with one game to go. In the Cup, however, they have come to life. They haven’t face a top flight team ahead of PSG but they were better than two Ligue 2 sides, Auxerre in the last 16 (3-0) and Lens in the quarter finals (0-0, 4-2 on penalties). They have a talented team with a lot of players who went through Ligue 1 clubs’ academies but didn’t make it.
The captain, Sebastien Flochon for example, is Samuel Umtiti’s best friend. They grew up together in Lyon, played with each other for Lyon’s youth teams but Flochon was released at 20 and had to bounce back in the lower leagues. The Cup has given him and some of his teammates the chance to get a revenge on the professional world.
Les Herbiers are just the fourth team from the third tier or lower to reach the Coupe de France final.
Les Herbiers’ young coach, Masala, captured well on Monday in his news conference, what it means for French football to showcase such a final. “This is the best publicity possible for the French Cup. This is the final of all football, the professional world and the amateur world. There will be talent and stars but also heart and solidarity” he said.
The final is broadcasted in 190 countries around the world, proof that Les Herbiers’ fairy-tale story has gone way beyond the French borders.
It is quite frequent in the French Cup to have small clubs go far in the competition. Reaching the quarterfinals for teams from the third or fourth division is very regular. But some have done even better. Quevilly, then in the third division like Les Herbiers, narrowly lost to Lyon (1-0) in the Cup final in 2012. In 2001, it was Amiens’ turn, also from the third tier, to reach the Stade de France. They eventually lost on penalties against Strasbourg.
The most iconic final happened in 2000 though when Calais, from the fourth division, qualified for the final after beating Lille, Cannes, Strasbourg and Bordeaux on their way. Their incredible run would end against Nantes (2-1) on a last-minute penalty despite the minnows opening the scoring.
What will be Les Herbiers’ fate in this final? This is the game of their lives. Their chance for eternal glory. The chance of causing the biggest upset in French football history. Most of France will cheer them on and they feel they have no pressure.
PSG have won the last three French Cups. They can achieve a third domestic treble in the last four years. They have proved to be ruthless in the past in games against weaker opposition and will almost be at home at the Stade de France. Les Herbiers have no chance. Everybody says it. But a football match is never won on paper.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.