Indian Ocean islanders dream of making French Cup history
Saint-Pierre (France) (AFP)
Known in the past for attracting star names like Roger Milla and Jean-Pierre Papin, JS Saint-Pierroise from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion are now hoping to make history in the French Cup this weekend.
Their win away to Ligue 2 side Niort in the last round earlier this month was headline news in France, and now they can become the first side from a French overseas territory to reach the last 16 of the national knockout competition if they can beat Epinal on Saturday.
While Epinal, from the Vosges mountains in eastern France, play in the fourth tier, JS Saint-Pierroise -- nicknamed 'The Storks' -- ply their trade in the equivalent of the sixth division.
They have already matched the achievement of Geldar Kourou from French Guiana, who were the first overseas outfit to make it as far as the last 32, back in 1989.
Little wonder a song, in the Sega genre traditional on the island, has been written to mark this occasion.
Unfortunately, competition rules mean 'The Storks' cannot play games at home at this stage of the French Cup, forcing them to come back to mainland France to prepare for this weekend's match, set to be played in temperatures around 25 degrees centigrade lower than on Reunion.
In the town of Saint-Pierre, in the south of the volcanic island situated off the east coast of Madagascar, the club play at the Stade Michel-Volnay, where France lost to China in a friendly before the 2010 World Cup.
Ten years on, JS Saint-Pierroise see their French Cup run as a chance to grow outside the confines of the local league, which they dominate, having won the last four league titles, and 21 overall.
"We are the only club from Reunion never to have been relegated," points out their coach, Christian Dafreville, to AFP. "We have won everything here," adds captain Jean-Michel Fontaine, and the club have even dreamt of competing in African continental competitions.
"For football on Reunion, including us, to progress, it is imperative that we open up to the outside world, nationally but also in Africa," adds Dafreville.
"African competitions are really important. Unfortunately you need the means and we don't have them."
- Big name players -
An annual subsidy of 325,000 euros ($363,000) makes up 70 percent of the budget of a club who attract average crowds of around 700.
A draw against a Ligue 1 club would therefore have been a dream come true, but it was not to be, not yet anyway.
Dafreville insists there are no stars in his team, although he has three members of the Madagascar squad that reached the quarter-finals of last year's Africa Cup of Nations.
Former Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Dundee United striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle, now 35, comes from the island and played for JS Saint-Pierroise in the first round of this season's competition before returning to mainland France to work as a TV pundit.
"We send each other messages, we speak on the phone, and he came to see us play against Niort. He's a great friend," says the captain Fontaine.
Then there are the great names who have represented the club in the past.
Dimtri Payet, the Marseille captain and France international, is another native of the island who has worn the club's colours. "He is part of our blood. We are still in contact with him," says Fontaine.
Cameroon great Milla played for the club just before starring at the 1990 World Cup, while Papin turned out for them towards the end of his glittering career.
They will all be keeping a keen eye on how Saint-Pierroise fare this weekend.
French Cup round of 32 fixtures (times GMT)
Pau v Bordeaux (1955)
Granville v Marseille (2005)
Nice v Red Star, Epinal v JS Saint-Pierroise, Prix les Mezieres v FC Limonest (all 1200), Gonfreville L'Orcher v Lille, Belfort v Nancy (all 1400), Paris FC v Saint-Etienne, Angouleme v Strasbourg (both 1700), Nantes v Lyon (1955)
Montpellier v Caen, Rouen v Angers, Athletico Marseille v Rennes, Dijon v Nimes (all 1615), Lorient v Paris Saint-Germain (1955)
Saint-Pryve Saint-Hilaire v Monaco
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