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French football mourns Robert Herbin, 'who made the impossible possible'

Former Saint-Etienne coach Robert Herbin, who has died aged 81, is credited with restoring pride to French football
Former Saint-Etienne coach Robert Herbin, who has died aged 81, is credited with restoring pride to French football PIERRE VERDY AFP/File
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Saint-Étienne (France) (AFP)

French football is mourning Robert Herbin, the inspirational coach of the flamboyant Saint-Etienne team that was narrowly defeated in the 1976 European Cup final.

Herbin died on Monday aged 81 after being taken to hospital last week with heart and lung problems unrelated to coronavirus.

He played more than 400 matches for Saint-Etienne and later brought a cerebral approach to coaching, earning the nickname the "The Sphinx" as he dragged French football back into the international spotlight.

France's national team slumped in the early 1970s, failing to reach the 1970 and 1974 World Cup finals, so the European run of Herbin's Saint-Etienne side caught the nation's attention.

The green-shirted team from central France that featured future France and Tottenham Hotspur manager Jacques Santini, midfielder creator Jean-Michel Larque and the talented Dominique Rocheteau as a substitute were beaten 1-0 by Bayern Munich at Hampden Park in Glasgow.

Herbin recalled that he was convinced everything conspired against his team that night.

"It left a deep impression on me. I have never got over it. I still think about it today. I think the good Lord wasn't with us, neither were the goalposts or the crossbar," he told AFP in 2015.

St Etienne board member Bernard Caiazzo paid tribute to Herbin, saying: "We will always remember a great international player but also an exceptional coach who brought the pride back to French football at a time when we were at a low."

"He showed us that 'impossible' doesn't exist in football," St Etienne chairman Roland Romeyer said.

"That is how St Etienne beat the biggest clubs in Europe in the 1970s. His greatest achievement was to get a whole city and country behind the team. He had unbelievable charisma and power."

Herbin coached St Etienne for 14 seasons in all, from 1972 to 1983 and then again from 1987 to 1990.

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