Fourth-tier amateurs Versailles play Nice for place in Coupe de France final | Soccer

The expansive Avenue de Paris cuts the city of Versailles clean through the middle, historically linking the west of the capital with the world-famous royal palace and gardens. Just before it pulls up below the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV guarding the front gates of his brainchild, a small road juts out northwards and leads to the Stade Montbauron, a nondescript 7,500-seat ground that appears almost in contradiction with the rest of the city’s royal air.

The stadium is home to FC Versailles 78, the fourth-tier club who have reached the semi-finals of the Coupe de France this season for the first time in their history. If they beat Nice on Tuesday night, they will meet either Nantes or Monaco in the final in May.

Versailles are the latest in a long run of underdogs who have progressed through what is surely the most democratic domestic cup competition in football. Ligue 1 teams often knock each other out early on in the competition, giving lower league sides the chance to progress. Les Herbiers were in the third tier when they met PSG in the final in 2018, and Calais were a fourth-tier side when they reached the final in 2000.

Versailles have already made it through six rounds to reach the semi-finals. They beat a couple of amateur sides in the early rounds and two fifth-tier clubs in the rounds of 64 and 32, before securing a hard-fought win over Ligue 2 leaders Toulouse in the last 16 and a penalty shootout victory over Bergerac in the quarter-finals.

They are now enjoying the national limelight that comes with a trip to Nice in the last four. Nice are third in Ligue 1 and are coached by Christophe Galtier, who guided Lille to the title last season, so this will be Versailles’ toughest challenge yet. They knocked PSG out of the competition on penalties at the end of January, making Versailles the Paris region’s sole representatives left in the competition.

The Palace of Versailles casts a shadow over the football club, both physically and figuratively, to the point of sometimes becoming an obstacle. Because of its proximity to the royal complex, the Stade Montbauron is not permitted to have floodlights, meaning the club cannot play home games after dark. The rule apparently dates back centuries and is in place to ban any “visible light sources” within a 5km radius reaching the King’s room.

The longstanding issue has particularly come to light during their cup run. Versailles were drawn to play their semi-final at home but, given the evening kick-off, the game has been moved to the Allianz Riviera instead. Versailles explored the idea of playing the tie in another stadium in Paris but that became logistically impossible, especially after PSG turned down a request to host the fixture at the Parc des Princes.

The absence of floodlights is a metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the task at hand for the club. Such is the fixation on the palace’s candle-lit halls, anything else in the town is left in relative obscurity. Youssef Chibhi, who has managed Versailles since 2014, is fully aware of this overbearing presence. “We won’t be able to compete with the palace and it’s not our wish,” he says. “We have a magnificent town, full of history, culture and art. What we hope to do with this cup run is to show that there’s also a town next to the palace, with people living here, with sports being played.”

The 40-year-old says the overriding feeling among his squad before the tie is one of tranquillity. “In a way, pressure is on Nice”, he says, while also recognising that “as the game gets closer, the excitement will increase”. Despite the logistical issues, the Versailles players have been getting the royal treatment in the buildup to their gala tie. They trained at the France national team’s base at Clairefontaine over the weekend and have been given access to Monaco’s facilities this week for last-minute preparations.

Even though Versailles are technically an amateur club who play in a regionalised division, most of the squad earn their living solely from football. Some take other jobs on the side. Their 22-year-old captain, Maël Durand de Gevigney, is in his final year of a physiotherapy degree, while the midfielder Oussama Berkak works as an IT consultant.

Versailles players celebrate reaching the Coupe de France semi-finals.
Versailles players celebrate reaching the Coupe de France semi-finals. Photograph: Romain Perrocheau/AFP/Getty Images

Despite all the limelight, Versailles are not being distracted from their long-term goals. With the team top of the league, promotion is now a very real prospect. Entry into the third tier – soon to become fully professional – would mean a major step forward in the club’s major plans for development since a handover in ownership in November.

The man at the helm is Jean-Luc Arribart, a former defender whose career in the 1970s and 1980s wavered between the first and second tiers and included spells at Rennes and Reims. He has since gained prominence as a long-time pundit for French channel Canal+, and was briefly a director at Lens at the turn of the century.

Arribart has big ambitions for the club. “We’re two games away from the Europa League,” he enthusiastically reminded us at the club’s training ground last week. The club’s long-term goal is to reach Ligue 2 and bring football to one of the few areas of the Parisian suburbs that is not a hotbed for the sport. “Even in Versailles, football has its place,” he says. “All that was needed was a team that could organise and structure itself, give itself the means and show ambition.”

Having come in as director at the start of the season, Arribart is trying to modernise and professionalise the club, notably focusing on infrastructure. The floodlights problem is a pressing issue and the construction of a youth academy could also be on the cards. “We’re going to give ourselves the means to grow and structure the club efficiently,” he says.

As a pundit for Canal+’s coverage of the Premier League, Arribart is well acquainted with English football and he is a big fan of how fan culture is fostered across the channel. “They have a base of supporters who are historically behind the club – we saw it in that series on Sunderland, which was fantastic – and you see those people laugh, cry, and go through every emotional state when following their club. Their whole week depends on the match result. They live through their club; it’s their driving force. We’re not quite there yet at Versailles, but we’re going to try and get inspired by it.”

Although the club are grateful for the attention their cup run has brought to the wider project, they are fully aware of the fleeting nature of the exposure. Once the spotlights move away at the end of their cup run, Versailles will need to make sure they can project a light of their own and sustainably capture the locals’ attention. Under an ambitious director and with financial backing, establishing themselves as a major presence in the regional landscape is an achievable goal. Whatever the outcome in Nice, this year’s cup run is the crowning achievement so far for a vision that is only just getting started.

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