Population 7,500, Guingamp takes on the world's best
GUINGAMP, France (AP) The coaches went to their club president with a modest request: could he buy them a hut, locker or something to store their footballs and equipment?
"No," replied Bertrand Desplat, "it costs money."
With one of the puniest budgets in France's top division, Guingamp can't splash the cash like some of the mammoths Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain being the prime example it competes against and humbles from time to time.
Out here in one of the most unlikely backwaters of top-class football, in a Brittany town of 7,300 inhabitants, where fans attend games wearing jerseys marked 'Proud to be a peasant,' euros and cents are counted in before being counted out. The golden rules of France's sole surviving representative in the Europa League: no debts, no spending beyond what the club earns.
"We really have a farmer's good sense," Desplat said in an Associated Press interview before the biggest European match in the club's 103-year-old history on Thursday, against Dynamo Kiev of Ukraine.
"At Guingamp, nothing we do is done just because it is easy," the president said. "The first response is always, 'No.' Then we have a re-think to see if the response can become, 'Yes, but...'"
Guingamp defies the usual logic of modern football.
With tumble-down ancient fortifications, austere houses of grey granite and damp Atlantic weather, the town is as far removed as one can get from the Parisian glitter, wealth and nightlife that have tempted some of the biggest names in football David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and others to France's top league.
But Guingamp can be a trampoline. Players that other teams reject or neglect "thinking they are too fat, too slow, too small, too stupid," said Desplat come here to start or revive careers, often loaned out or allowed to leave for little or nothing by clubs that found no use for them.
"We take them in, because we see the potential," Desplat said. "We believe in the man inside the player."
Some are miserable moving to the sticks. Wages, for football, are modest. Unlike at PSG, no Guingamp player earns enough to be hit by the Socialist government's super-tax on salaries over 1 million euros (US$1.13 million), Desplat said. But as a top division team, Guingamp is as good a place as any to get noticed. Playing well is the ticket out. With 17 still fondly remembered goals in 34 league games in 2002-2003, it was here that Didier Drogba teamed with winger Florent Malouda first caught the eye of their future manager at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho.
All that fans and club administrators ask is that players give their all "drench the jersey" with sweat, as they say before Guingamp sells the best. Proceeds are plowed into the future. The 7.5 million euros ($8.5 million) the club reportedly earned from midfielder Giannelli Imbula's transfer to Marseille in 2013 (Desplat wouldn't confirm the amount) is financing new facilities for Guingamp academy players.
PSG, France's richest club, has a budget nearly 20 times larger than Guingamp's 25 million euros ($28.5 million). But while money is increasingly important for football success, the Bretons prove it isn't everything. They see themselves as football's equivalent of Asterix, the beloved cartoon character whose village, thanks to its druid's super-strength magic potion, holds out against Roman invaders. Fans have taped a figurine of the druid and his cauldron to a handrail in Guingamp's stadium.
Desplat invoked the spirit of Asterix when he shook players out of a catastrophic start to this season, telling them in December to "sound the alarm and find the ingredients of the famous magic potion." They won the next match 5-1 and the next 12 of 16 games after that, including a 1-0 victory against PSG, the French champions' first league loss of the season. Guingamp qualified for its Europa League adventure by winning the French Cup last May. The only French team among 32 still in the competition travels to Kiev this week, carrying a 2-1 lead from a boiling first leg in Guingamp's Roudourou stadium on Thursday, with two Dynamo players sent off and home fans singing, "We'll never abandon you!" in the rain.
"We like being the never-ending miracle, the little village of Gauls who resist," said Fabrice Colleau, a Guingamp coach and former teammate of Drogba and Malouda.
The engineer of Guingamp's on-field success is coach Jocelyn Gourvennec, who took over in 2010 and is surely destined for bigger clubs, perhaps overseas, having hauled the team from the third division. Equally remarkable is what Guingamp offers off the field: old-school charm and friendliness, football on a human scale, genuine love between club and fans.
In a town this small, players can't motor around with big heads. Playing for Guingamp means crossing paths with fans in the supermarket and queuing with them at the bakery for Sunday morning bread after playing for them the night before.
"It's not gods on one side and plebs on the other," said Desplat. "Matches are won by a whole family being together."
Guingamp slashed, instead of hiked, ticket prices against Dynamo, with the most expensive costing 20 euros ($23), to reward fans' loyalty.
The 18,000-capacity Roudourou, named for the Breton word for a river crossing, holds more than twice as many people as Guingamp has inhabitants. Yet it heaves, draining supporters from surrounding villages, farms, towns and fishing ports short of other forms of entertainment. Fans start each season crossing fingers the team will play well enough to stay in the top division. Any triumph beyond that is celebrated with abandon.
"Like 99 percent of professional teams in Europe, Guingamp has no chance of winning a European cup. We couldn't care less. The idea for us is to have challenges ahead that look unwinnable and to try and win them," said Desplat.
"When you win an unwinnable challenge, the collective emotion is better than a Bruce Springsteen concert."