AS Saint Etienne hold a special position in the French football landscape. Les Verts have made history with their enormous success over the years, while their moments of failure have earned them a place both in French football folklore and the hearts of fans across the country. Join FIFA.com as we profile a football institution that dominated the French game for decades, and once came within a lick of paint of reigning supreme in Europe.
Birth of an institution
The town of Saint Etienne has a proud industrial past, so it is perhaps little surprise that workers played such a key role in creating its football team. In 1919, local retailer Groupe Casino set up a sports club for its employees called L’Amicale des employés de la Société des magasins Casino (ASC). Sport became an everyday part of their lives, just as it would for Peugeot workers in the town of Sochaux some years later. The new team soon had to change its title, however, following a ban on the use of trademarks in sports organisations. The name Amicale Sporting Club was eventually chosen, as it allowed the club to keep its ASC acronym.
The foundations were now in place, and in 1927 the Association Sportive de Saint-Etienne was born, after ASC merged with another local side, Stade Forezien Universitaire. The Casino name was no longer attached to the club, but one important detail ensured that the company’s legacy would always remain. Saint Etienne chose to play in green, which is the primary colour of the Casino brand. It was also the colour of the blinds in the office of Geoffroy Guichard, the company’s founder.
The club then established a measure of stability by acquiring its own stadium, before turning professional and joining the French second division for the 1933/34 season. The Stephanois went on to spend five seasons in the second tier, before eventually gaining promotion to the first division.
Making of a legend
Saint Etienne secured their place in the top flight in some style. Les Verts, who needed to beat Tourcoing on the final matchday of the 1937/38 season to go up, went in at half-time with the score tied at 2-2. But just 45 minutes later, the scoreboard read 7-2 and promotion was theirs. Saint Etienne finished fourth in their debut season in the top tier, but with the start of the Second World War came a difficult period for French football, which limited their ability to push on.
In 1955, under the guidance of former player Jean Snella, Saint Etienne won their first trophy: the Coupe Charles Drago, which was a competition for teams eliminated before the quarter-finals of the Coupe de France. Greater success soon followed, with the club winning its first French league title in 1957. This signalled the start of a long and fruitful period for Les Verts, who would go on to largely dominate French football until the early 1980s.
In the 1960s, Saint Etienne won the league four more times (’64, ’67, ’68, ’69), and they added a further four league titles in the 1970s (’70, ’74, ’75, ’76). They also lifted the Coupe de France on six occasions in that period (’62, ’68, ’70, ’74, ’75, ’77). This prolonged spell of success allowed the Stephanois to enter the history books, but it was through one-off matches and human stories that they secured their place in the hearts of French football fans.
Saint Etienne won the first of their four league and cup doubles in 1968 under legendary coach Albert Batteux, who had already achieved remarkable success with Reims in the 1950s. The club also picked up four consecutive league titles from 1967 to 1970, a feat that had never before been achieved in French football.
When setbacks did eventually come along, Les Verts always recovered brilliantly. In 1962 they were relegated to the second division, but still managed to win the Coupe de France before dropping down. And they earned immediate promotion back to the top flight, before being crowned champions of France in their very first season back among the elite.
Among the heroes of Saint Etienne’s golden era were Rene Domingo, who pulled on the famous green shirt 537 times, and Salif Keita, whose endless goals, brilliant passing ability and dribbling skills captivated crowds for several years. Other well-loved figures from this period were Rachid Mekhloufi, Dominique Rocheteau, Jean-Michel Larque, Herve Revelli and Ivan Curkovic, as well as Oswaldo Piazza and Robert Herbin, who were as likeable off the pitch as they were gifted on it. But while years of success earned the club its place in French football history, it was one memorable failure that secured its legendary status.
Saint Etienne qualified for Europe for the first time in 1957, but their early continental campaigns were marked by inconsistency. The club finally found its rhythm in the 1975/76 season, however, at a time when it was considered a major feat for a French side to progress through the rounds in Europe. Les Verts made it to the final that year, knocking out KB Copenhagen, Rangers, Dynamo Kyiv and PSV Eindhoven along the way.
Their opponents in the final in Glasgow were Bayern Munich, who were looking to win the competition for a third time. The French outfit dominated the game and were twice denied by the post, but it was Bayern who would ultimately come out on top thanks to a single goal by Franz Roth. Many French fans still maintain that, had the posts been ronds (round) instead of carrés (square), the ball would possibly have crossed the line and result might have been quite different.
Despite their defeat, the Saint Etienne players received a heroes’ welcome from president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on their return to France. And they even marched up the Champs-Elysees in Paris where tens of thousands of French football fans had gathered, sad at the result but proud of Les Verts’ performance.
This would prove to be the end of Saint Etienne’s long spell of dominance, although they did enjoy a brief renaissance with the 1979 signing of Michel Platini, who was instrumental in the club’s last league triumph in 1981. The trophies have all but dried up since then and the club has suffered relegation several times, with off-the-field events counting against them on more than one occasion.
After several years of yo-yoing between France’s top divisions, Saint Etienne returned to Ligue 1 in 2004 and have since cemented their place with a number of top-half finishes. Les Verts even managed to qualify for Europe in 2008, and went on to reach the last 16 of the 2008/09 UEFA Cup.
This season, under Christophe Galtier, the Stephanois are once again pushing for a place in Europe, with a side that blends experienced Ligue 1 campaigners with talented youngsters from the club’s youth academy. The fans, meanwhile, remain as passionate and committed as ever, and would love nothing more than to see domestic and continental success return to the club.
The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, which opened in 1931 before the club had even acquired professional status, is one of the most feared away venues in French football. Such is the ground’s reputation that it has earned the nickname le chaudron (the cauldron). The stadium initially had a single, 1,000-capacity stand, but has undergone extensive development over the years. The last major work on the ground came ahead of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, when its capacity was increased to 35,616. A further 5,000 seats will be installed for UEFA EURO 2016, as well as a museum to showcase the club’s rich history.
The club’s biggest attendance to date came in 1985, when Saint Etienne hosted Lille in the quarter-finals of the Coupe de France. A total of 47,747 fans packed the stadium on that occasion, at a time when seats were not compulsory at all French grounds.