Alex Dupont, coach of recently promoted Brest, was under no illusions as to the challenges that lay ahead at the start of the 2010/11 Ligue 1 season. “Last year, we scaled Mont Blanc. This year, we’re taking on Everest!” Enthused the coach.
After nineteen years spent in the lower divisions of French football, and with the second to lowest budget in Ligue 1, Dupont's team would have been forgiven for focusing on simply avoiding relegation this year. And yet, with one third of the season gone, Brest are sitting pretty at the top of the Ligue 1 table. FIFA.com takes a look at the Breton club’s remarkable return to the pinnacle of French football.
Twenty-four years have passed since the side from Brittany last flirted with the crème de la crème of French football. Back then, the team was a mix of world class and local players attempting to hold their own against the likes of Marseille, Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain. The 1986/87 season proved the highlight for Brest Armorique when they ended the campaign in a creditable eight place in the first division - their highest finish to date.
Jose Luis Brown, fresh from Argentinian glory at the 1986 FIFA World Cup™, and Brazilian sweeper Julio Cesar made up the formidable Brest central defence that year. “Julio Cesar had just come from the World Cup himself when he first played in the team’s colours,” recalls Jean-Pierre Bosser, who donned the red and white jersey 180 times in his career - still a record today.
“I remember it was a game in which he wasn’t supposed to appear, but he couldn’t help himself. He stole a jersey and shorts and played a whole half in his trainers!” Bosser’s anecdote speaks volumes for the relaxed atmosphere in the Brest dressing room that year, sprinkled with the sweet aroma of ambition.
Global stars and homegrown heroes
Francois Yvinec, who was president of the club at the time, was not lacking in ambition and spared little expense when it came to bringing in new players, particularly from South America. Paraguayan striker Roberto Cabanas and Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycoechea were notable signings, and the recruitment of such rising French stars as David Ginola and Bernard Lama along with budding home-grown talent like Stephane Guivarc'h and Claude Makelele meant Brest had a team that could compete at the highest level.
But holding onto such gems came at a cost that was not being repaid by the club’s results. In 1991, despite finishing the season in a respectable 11th place, Brest’s debts were such that the authorities relegated them to the second division, and just months later the club declared bankruptcy. The professional team was disbanded and so began a long fallow spell. This was to last 13 years, despite the side enjoying relative success in the amateur championship.
Finally, thanks in no small part to the emergence of Franck Ribery during a vintage 2003/04 season, Brest were promoted to Ligue 2, and in the years that followed they managed to stay there, without ever showing much promise of promotion. Then, tactician Alex Dupont came on board and began to take the club forward. He arrived just in time to rescue the club from relegation in the closing stages of the 2008/09 season and proceeded to lead Brest to the top flight the very next year.
No stars, but a pastor to tend the team
Something of a footballing philosopher, Dupont clearly identifies with Breton values. “Passion brings men to life and wisdom keeps them alive. I like the Breton spirit. It reminds me of the region where I come from in the north. I also like high quality football and stadiums that smell of chips and beer.”
Brest’s success this year is built first and foremost on “tremendous team spirit” according to Dupont. A watertight defence and clinical attack are helpful ingredients too though, and while the side might no longer boast stars of the game, it is now made up of a blend of gifted players like Nolan Roux and Bruno Grougi and leaders of men such as the Congolese captain Oscar Ewolo, who is a pastor in his spare time.
“Life is good for the team right now and that is giving me pleasure from both a sporting and a personal perspective,” says ‘Sir Alex’, as he is known in the town. “When I see the way the team has taken on this league – with such passion, belief and humility – I know we’re on the right track.” President Michel Guyot agrees: “It is a magical thing: we don’t know how far this team can go.” Given the side went 832 minutes without conceding a goal already this season, and boasts the second best defence in Ligue 1 with just seven goals conceded, the sky is surely the limit.
Brest have rekindled the spark of their glory years then, without the stars, but with the same ingredients: steadfast solidarity and a wonderful atmosphere. Corentin Martins, the club’s Sporting Director, recently joked that the best for Brest is yet to come: “I said to my president that I was going to try to bring a star player from Brest to the club. Well, Gonzalo Higuain was born in Brest!”
Higuain is, of course, unlikely to make such a move any time soon, but should Stade Brestois remain in the UEFA Champions League spots until the end of the season, the Real Madrid star may yet find himself playing on native soil in next year’s edition of Europe’s elite club competition…