The numbers beneath Racing Club de Strasbourg’s promotion to Ligue 1 are nine and six. The front pages of L’Équipe and the local Alsace paper DNA both carried the pictures of their Ligue 2 title celebrations under the heading “Le Grand Retour”, but it was DNA’s headline from a week previously which was most fitting. “La résurrection” was their summation before the penultimate match of the season. The club may have failed to secure promotion that day, but on a gripping season finale they got back to the top flight – nine years after they were last in it, and six since the club was placed into judicial liquidation.
Strasbourg’s Stade de la Meinau holds nearly 30,000 and was packed to the rafters on the last day of the season, with the Kop end illuminated in the eerie red of a bank of flares. Rewind back to 2011/12, however, and the club were plying their trade in the fifth tier of French football against semi-professional opponents from Alsatian villages and towns and a couple of Ligue 1 sides’ second or third string teams.
During that 2011/12 season, Racing had opened with a game against Illzach Modenheim, a little town of 15,000 people just north of Mulhouse. Strasbourg’s population is around 275,000. The following March, the club, and a few hundred supporters, made the trip to Steinseltz, a small Alsatian village whose ground spilled over with fans on the grass behind the goals, and whose population (if Wikipedia is to be believed) will have been outnumbered by the 2,000 spectators at the match that day.
Those difficult years were a far cry from Strasbourg’s achievements: Ligue 1 title winners in 1978/79 (featuring two appearances from a certain Arsène Wenger); three times Coupe de France winners; three times Coupe de la Ligue winners; and five-time entrants in the UEFA Cup. In 1997/98, Strasbourg’s European cup run did away with Rangers and Liverpool before they fell, in the second leg at the San Siro, to an Inter Milan side whose scorers that day were Ronaldo, Javier Zanetti, and Diego Simeone.
Racing may have hoped to have built on successes and emulate the glories that Liverpool and Inter had. Yet it’s Rangers that they now ironically share most in common with; both are relatively large clubs, falling through the leagues due to financial troubles. Similarly to Rangers, after their fall, Strasbourg rose through the first few leagues easily, winning the fifth and fourth tiers back-to-back.
Unlike Rangers, though, Strasbourg had started their slide long before liquidation finally came. In 2001, they ‘did a Wigan’ a whole decade before Wigan, winning the Coupe de France but being relegated in the same season. Ownership of the club bounced around different parties during this time, from the local municipality to agents-of-the-stars International Management Group (IMG), and back again to local businessmen, with none of them having much success in managing the club’s finances. The club almost went into liquidation a year before it actually did, saved partially at that time through player sales. When the authorities came knocking again in the summer of 2011, there was nothing left to flog.
19th May 2017 is not a day that Jérémy Grimm will ever forget. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder had played for Strasbourg’s reserve side in his early 20s, before playing for lower league Alsace teams between 2008 and 2013. Many of the Ligue 2-winning side have joined the club in the last two or three years, but Grimm has been there a little longer, joining in 2013 for Strasbourg’s first season in the third tier.
He has been a regular fixture throughout his career at the club, though was on the bench for the final game this season. At a celebration event after the match, Grimm called his girlfriend. He took off his winner’s medal, took off his shirt, revealing a message on his vest, ‘Will you marry me?’. She said yes - 19th May 2017, a day of joy on two fronts.
The same cannot be said of Grimm’s first season back at the club in 2013-14, with Strasbourg struggling in the third tier. They finished 16th of 18, and were only saved from relegation by a decision by the DNCG, the organisation who oversees the accounts of professional football clubs in France. The DNCG rules, on occasion, that clubs do not have the financial stability to be promoted or stay in a certain league, and it was through these rulings on other clubs that Strasbourg benefitted.
A spectacular disagreement among the footballing authorities and small club Luzenac AP barred them from being promoted to Ligue 2 – firstly for financial reasons and then for an unsatisfactory stadium situation – and ended up sending them down to the 7th tier of French football, their death but Strasbourg’s saviour.
It was a time for Racing to reignite their rise - a phoenix returning to life. Current captain Ernest Seka arrived, and club legend Jacky Duguépéroux, who had joined as manager in the back-end of the previous season, had his first full campaign in charge. They missed out on promotion by a single point.
The next year, June 2016. “Merci Jacky” rings out amongst the stands as the 68-year-old traipses along the sidelines, past the Kop, past the corner stand where the ‘Ultra Boys 90’ set up shop. ‘Dugué’, as the fans call him, has had a history of magic touches with the club. He was captain during Strasbourg’s Ligue 1 title win, and in each of his previous two stints as manager, he had won silverware. Now he had brought the club back to the professional leagues, leading the club to the third-tier title.
It had been a title-winning campaign that reminded you that Duguépéroux had plied his trade as a player in defence. They conceded only 19 goals in 34 games, but only scored 35. Were the table sorted by goals scored, they would have only finished joint 10th, and there was a period of nearly four and a half months when they failed to score away from home. Even when they were playing at La Meinau, it was not unknown for crowds of Strasbourgeois faithful to whistle their disdain as their side took the ball into the corner against mid-table teams in order to preserve a one-goal lead.
If the home crowds’ ties to Duguépéroux are more lukewarm than they might normally be for a former captain and successful returning manager, the celebrations at promotion were anything but. The passion of the Strasbourg fans has carried throughout their fall to, and subsequent rise from, the ashes, smashing attendance records wherever they go.
The average attendance during this most recent Ligue 2 season has been greater than over a third of teams in Ligue 1. The club, as all do, has a few fan-centric slogans, and La Meinau’s version of Liverpool’s ‘This is Anfield’ sign is a message which reads “Nous ne sommes pas onze, mais des milliers” – “we are not eleven, but thousands”. It’s not only the young men of the ‘Ultra Boys’, and the slightly older male demographic of other fan groups, which Strasbourg has sought to attract – the club makes a special effort to provide activities for younger children at the stadium before the match, and regularly tries to promote the attendance of female fans.
As such, there has been a tremendous amount of support for Strasbourg in their promotion attempts from the French public. When L’Équipe recently asked on Facebook which of the contenders their audience would most like to see promoted, Strasbourg may well have been mentioned more than any other, generally with the quality of their support also mentioned.
Strasbourg’s Place Kléber has seen many things. A five-minute walk from the Cathedral takes you to the royalty-hosting Palais Rohan. Originally named after a general of the French Revolutionary Wars, it was renamed Kléberplatz after German annexation, and, for a long, heartstring-pulling year, featured a collection of tealights, flowers, and poems in dedication to those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in January and November 2015. It is the hub of the famous Christmas market.
The day after promotion and the Ligue 2 title was secured, it was packed full of Strasbourg fans, men, women, children on their parents’ shoulders. In the early evening sun, they celebrated. They celebrated the resurrection of their hometown club.