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Football fairytale comes to sad end for tiny French village

AFP / Pascal Pavani |Luzenac's players take part in a training session in Toulouse, southern France, on August 8, 2014

When Idriss Ech-Chergui, a journeyman midfielder for the tiny French village football team of Luzenac, scored a 72nd minute winner in a match against Boulogne in April, it seemed like one of football’s greatest fairytales had just been realised.

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The 1-0 victory meant that Luzenac, a town of just 650 people nestled in the Pyrenees, was set for promotion from the third division, the National, into the second-tier Ligue 2, where it would compete with comparative football giants from some of France’s biggest towns and cities.

But what should have been one of the biggest feel-good stories in European football for decades came to a cruel end Wednesday when Luzenac was banished back to the wilderness of the amateur leagues or, in the words of the club’s managing director, the French World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, a “descent into hell”.

After being barred from entering Ligue 2, first over its financial situation and then concerns about its stadium, Luzenac had sought to re-enter the National for the 2014-15 season.

Instead the French Football Federation (FFF) proposed they play in the CFA 2, the fifth tier of French football.

It was an offer the club could only refuse, a dejected sounding Barthez explained Wednesday, and Luzenac, in its current form, will cease to exist.

"You need to know when to say 'stop', when you can no longer fight. We can no longer fight," he said.

The Luzenac name will live on, but will now compete in the DHR (Division d'honneur regionale), the amateur seventh division, with the first team players all being released and the second team taking their place.

From amateur football to the cusp of Ligue 2

It is difficult to overstate the achievement represented by Luzenac’s remarkable journey to the gates of Ligue 2. As recently as 2000, the club had been playing in the sixth tier of French football in the regional Midi-Pyrénées league.

Its stadium, the Stade Paul-Fédou, had a seated capacity of just 400 (but still enough to accommodate nearly two thirds of the town’s population). It was already the smallest club ever to compete in the National. Boulogne, the team Luzenac beat to win promotion, boasts a population nearly 70 times larger, at 43,310.

Formed in 1936, the club had for decades been nothing but a typical French village team competing against local rivals in the amateur leagues. But a remarkable climb through the divisions in the first decade of the new millennium culminated in promotion to the dizzying heights of the National in 2009.

Few expected them to survive there for long. But under the stewardship of local businessman Jérôme Ducros, who took over the club in 2010, they avoided relegation for four seasons.

Ducros had bigger plans though and before the start of the 2013-14 season he decided to target promotion to Ligue 2, increasing the club’s budget for new players and appointing Barthez, also a native of the region, as managing director.

The plan paid off faster than anyone expected, thanks in part to Barthez’s shrewd signings, and the club finished the season in second place and as the division’s top scorers. They began preparing for the new challenge of life in Ligue 2.

But the French football establishment had other ideas.

First there were concerns over Luzenac’s finances. The Direction Nationale de Contrôle et de Gestion (DNCG), a body set up by the FFF to make sure professional football clubs have their finances in order, announced in June that Luzenac would be barred from entering Ligue 2 over budgetary concerns.

A series of appeals followed, and the case bounced between various sporting bodies and courtrooms. Reprieves were granted and struck down again until eventually, on August 7 and with the 2014 season already underway, the DNCG approved the club’s finances and cleared Luzenac to take part in Ligue 2.

‘The story ends here’

The jubilation, however, was short-lived. The very next day, the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), which runs France's major professional football leagues, held an emergency summit where it was decided that Luzenac’s lack of a suitable stadium meant it would once again be barred from competing in France’s second tier.

Luzenac had already been using a ground in nearby Foix in its final season in the National. But with a capacity of just 3,000, it was too small to meet Ligue 2 standards.

The club proposed using the 20,000-seat Ernest Wallon Stadium in Toulouse, home of Top 14 rugby side Stade Toulousain, but the LFP said the ground did not meet the required safety standards.

“The LFP's administrative council, which is responsible for the consistency of its competitions, the security of its spectators and fairness between clubs, has no other choice but to once again refuse Luzenac's participation in the second division,” it said.

Last-gasp appeals to France’s National Olympic and Sporting Committee (CNOSF) and an administrative court in Toulouse failed.

The dream was over. Luzenac would not be joining Ligue 2 this year.

But the final insult came on Wednesday, when the club that came so close to achieving the impossible was sent back to the very bottom of the French football pyramid.

The blow seemed one too many for the staff and players. The spirit of defiance that had sustained Luzenac through its battle for Ligue 2 status had apparently evaporated.

Barthez announced he and Ducros would be leaving the club.

“For us, Jérôme and me, it’s finished, the story ends here,” he told French sports daily L’Equipe.

For the players, an uncertain future awaits.

"The second team becomes the first team. The players are freed from their contracts and will now have to go down to the job centre,” midfielder Nicolas Dieuze told AFP.

"Who would have thought that five months after our promotion to Ligue 2, we'd be saying goodbye to each other in a car park?"

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