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Saint-Etienne vs Lyon: The ugly beauty of France's greatest local derby

Saint-Etienne vs Lyon
The match was captivating but never beautiful
Robin Bairner
SENIOR ANALYST
Modified 08 Feb 2017, 16:54 IST
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Two-footed, high and late: that was how Lyon midfielder Corentin Tolisso crashed into Saint-Etienne’s Fabien Lemoine in the dying stages of Sunday’s Rhone-Alps derby.

It had been a match that had simmered from early on, with the high pressing and physicality of the hosts visibly irritating their more technical opponents. Saint-Etienne had opened an early two-goal lead thanks to Kevin Monnet-Paquet and Romain Hamouma, and thereafter stubbornly defended their advantage against opponents more technically gifted but ultimately more fractured as a team.

The match was captivating but never beautiful; a passionate derby spectacle that the boisterous home fans rejoiced in winning, particularly as they saw two visiting players dismissed in stoppage time. 

Lemoine marched off after them, and following initial reports that he too had seen red, it was revealed after the game that he was simply furious with Tolisso’s tackle and was not prepared to risk a broken leg in the closing seconds of the game.

This particular fixture is perhaps the most passionate in French football, and with the sides now closely matched on the field, rarely has it been so consistently inflammatory. 

Tensions have always bubbled between the clubs, with the occasional eruption of an incident.

Citizens of Saint-Etienne, a working-class city best known for its coal mining and bicycle manufacture, feel they are looked down on by their counterparts from Lyon, which is considered a hub of the arts, home of the French silk industry and, latterly, cinema and science. 

Grievances run deep between the two towns, which are only around 30 kilometres apart, making it one of the few genuine local derbies in France.

When Anthony Mounier, a former Lyon youth player, was signed on loan by Saint-Etienne from Genoa in January, head coach Christophe Galtier thought the fans would forget the distasteful remarks he had made about them in the past. Even the coach, France’s longest serving in the professional game, underestimated how deeply a grudge can be felt.

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“Mounier: Our colours will never be yours.” That was the banner that officials found both outside of their Stade Geoffroy-Guichard home and at their training centre.

“When I got off the plane, I started getting a lot of pictures,” the player admitted to L’Equipe. “I knew it was going to be a tense welcome, but the management thought that we could handle it.  

“But it was out of the question for some supporters that I would wear the green jersey.

“One guy told the president that he is married, with kids, but that if he met me, he would have no problems of going to prison for five of six months. It went too far.”

Such was the vehemence of the abuse that the player received, he declared he “did not want to become a dead weight” and his loan was nullified. 

Due to the country’s complex political problems during the Second World War, there is only one major team in each of the big cities. Sure, there are numerous smaller clubs in Paris – Creteil, Paris FC and Red Star – but Paris Saint-Germain are the only top-flight team, just as is the case with Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux and every major municipality. It is a unique position.

History is, therefore, often a great factor than geography for Ligue 1 derby matches, with rivalries somewhat more fluid than in other nations, where locality plays the chief role.

PSG and Marseille

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The biggest of these is between PSG and Marseille, which has become an important clash over the last 25 years. 

When television station Canal+ bought a stake in the Parisian side in 1991, OM were the dominant force in French football, so with the rights to the games, they did their best to generate as much hype as possible. It became known as a clash between two different cultures: the sophisticated capital side against their freewheeling southern counterparts. 

“My first OM-PSG games at the end of the 1980s were quite normal,” Champions League-winning Marseille defender Eric Di Meco told L’Equipe. “With the arrival of Canal+, the matches became more tense. They needed to make the games harder, to make them more appealing.”

The culmination of this was what is now known as ‘La Boucherie’ (The Butcher’s Shop) on December 18, 1992. Despite the presence of fine players such as David Ginola, Alen Boksic and Rudi Voller, the match “resembled a street fight”, according to L’Equipe, and contained a staggering 57 fouls.

Similar rivalries have come and gone with the years, such as Saint-Etienne vs Nantes and Marseille vs Bordeaux, which preceded OM’s rivalry with PSG by only a few years.

The most enduring battles remain between near neighbours, though these are not always the fiercest in a country in which regional pride is often to the fore of the civic variety. There are, for example, four sides in Brittany, but none of their meetings are played with the true intensity of derby match in Britain.

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Lens and Lille in the north is one notable exception, but with the former struggling to win promotion from Ligue 2, that is a match up unlikely to be seen for some time yet.

So, for now, nothing can match the passion and intensity of a Saint-Etienne vs Lyon matchup, as Sunday’s frantic meeting was testimony to.

The match may have been an ugly affair, but that it was so captivating is the unique beauty of the derby. 

Published 08 Feb 2017, 15:59 IST
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