One Of Us Speaks: Brothers in Arms
Big Al is back, raiding his Dire Straits record collection for an title. Sorry, was I supposed to keep that secret? Whooops…
With not much to add to the big transfer debates at the moment, I figured this week would be the last opportunity to go off on a tangent before the real football starts. So in this blog I’m going to skim over the complicated and turbulent history of one of France’s oldest clubs, and their link with our club.
This summer Paris Saint-Germain is a club with the world at its feet, with a huge potential fan base, massive investment from abroad and a relative paucity of domestic competition standing between them and Europe’s top table.
But there’s another team, wallowing in the amateur fifth tier of French football, that once held the mantle of Paris’ top club; they took part in one of the forerunners to European competition; some of the brightest stars in world football have donned their blue and white striped jersey; they were the Man City of the mid-80s, but, most importantly, they maintained a long-running friendship with Arsenal FC.
Today they are known as Racing Club de France Football-Levallois 92, but in the 1930s they were simply Racing Club de Paris.
In autumn 1930, Arsenal were on their way to their first title under manager Herbert Chapman, but on Armistice Day the club was in Paris, taking part in what would be the first encounter in a friendly international rivalry that would span more than 30 years. Arsenal beat Racing 7-2 at the Colombes Stadium in northwest Paris.
Racing Club de Paris was established ten years after Arsenal, in 1896, and was one of the leading French clubs throughout the pre-war and post-war years. They won the league and cup double in 1936 and went on to win the cup another four times before 1950.
Herbert Chapman and Racing president Jean-Bernard Levy had got together to organise this annual exhibition match for the benefit of invalids of the Great War. The match took place every 11th November, or thereabouts right up to 1961, with a six-year gap during the Second World War.
This was a small step towards organised European club competition, with two of the top teams on the continent facing off and attracting international media attention. To give you an idea of just how forward-thinking this initiative was; 25 years later in 1955, when Chelsea won their first (and last until 2005) league title, they declined the offer to take part in the inaugural Champions Cup, which underlined the prevailing parochial attitudes in British football at the time and would only be swept away by the likes of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly.
In the 30s, Arsenal’s new manager had long recognised the worth in promoting Arsenal abroad. As all gooners know, before he passed away in 1934 he made a handful of prescient innovations, like rebranding Gillespie Road Tube Station Arsenal, introducing white sleeves, taking complete charge of team selection, tactics, and then pioneering the WM system that would survive into the early-60s.
In his weekly column for the Sunday Express he argued for the introduction of shirt numbers, stadium clocks, white footballs, artificial pitches, European competition and floodlights, 25 years before they were instituted in English football.
Back in France Arsenal made an impression on their French audience, who came up with descriptive nicknames for striker Cliff Bastin (fireworks) and winger Joe Hulme (eel), with the most extravagant saved for inside forward Alex James (miracle). It was a fixture that Arsenal dominated right up to the war, with eight victories and two draws.
Post-war Racing registered their first victory in 1952, and managed to beat Arsenal once more in 1959. By the early 60s there was trouble on the horizon for French football. Stars such as Raymond Kopa and Rahid Mekhloufi opted to spend their peak years abroad. The national team failed to rouse the public and slumped throughout the 60s, qualifying only for the World Cup in ‘66. Attendances in the domestic leagues were lower than ever, and would trough at the end of decade, just in time for May ’68.
Racing Club de Paris had a brief return to former glories at the beginning of the 60s, finishing second in 1961 and ’62, but with dwindling crowds were sucked into the abyss, along with traditional big guns like Sète and Roubaix, who never recovered. By 1967 the club had lost its professional status and were confined to the darker recesses of the French league system.
That was until a remarkable but brief return to the top flight in the 1980s. This chapter of Racing’s history is one of excess and hubris, thoroughly appropriate for the day.
Enter Matra – Mécanique Aviation TRAction – a French company founded by the prominent industrialist Jean-Luc Lagardère, who also founded the major French conglomerate of the same name. Matra specialised in bicycles and cars, dabbling also in aircraft, satellites and missiles. Lagardère invested millions into the club, sensing the potential in establishing a top-level Parisian outfit to rival PSG.
Racing were merged with FC Paris to become Racing Paris 1 and rocketed through the leagues, gaining promotion to Ligue 1 in 1984. Lagardère was bullish; his public goal was to establish a side that would win the European Cup before the decade was out, and he went about buying some of the biggest stars in world football at the time, – Uruguayan playmaker Enzo Francescoli, German winger Pierre Littbarski, French holding-midfielder Luis Fernandez and hair spokesman David Ginola.
Despite this array of talent, the Paris public wasn’t convinced. The enterprise was considered crass and artificial, and the team’s change in name in 1987 to Matra Racing probably didn’t help to win the punters over. A side packed with some of the biggest names in world football played in front of pitiful crowds. Lagardère pulled out and the club sunk like a stone once more.
Until this summer there was still a slight connection between the one-time friends Arsenal and Racing – William Gallas and Jérémie Aliadière played in Racing’s junior teams before joining Clairefontaine.
And although Racing Levallois 92 now bear little resemblance to our former friends, and are now in the lowly CFA Groupe 2 maybe we could revive that November exhibition game – at the very least it would give us a hell of confidence boost.