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donderdag, mei 24, 2012

'Ugly ducklings' win French title

Fans celebrate Montpellier winning the French league, the first time the team has ever won the title.
Fans celebrate Montpellier winning the French league, the first time the team has ever won the title.
  • Montpellier win the French league for the first time in club's history
  • Beat Auxerre 2-1 to beat second placed Paris St. Germain to the title
  • No one expected the unfancied club to win; coach called them his "ugly ducklings"
  • PSG bought by Qatari investors; one player worth more than entire Montpellier team

(CNN) -- There is a lot to be said for modesty mixed with self-deprecation when faced with overwhelming odds, but despite his best efforts Louis Nicollin ended up displaying neither of these fine qualities.

Last November, when the president and owner of Montpellier -- an unglamorous, unfancied, mid-table team that had shocked itself by leading the French league despite never having troubled the upper echelons before -- was asked about the prospects of his team staying the course, he was incredulous to say the least.

"Montpellier champions? Impossible," scoffed Nicollin, who made his money in the refuse industry, in an interview with French sports daily newspaper L'Equipe.

"If I were at PSG (Paris St. Germain), Lyon, Lille or Rennes, and Montpelier finished as champions, I'd want to stab myself in the backside with a sausage.

"What a disgrace that would be!"

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Last weekend Nicollin's "disgrace" was complete.

His Montpellier players were crowned champions of France after a 2-1 victory over Auxerre, fending off PSG -- now one of the richest teams in the world after being bought out by the Qatar Investment Authority -- to secure the club's first ever league title.

The victory was remarkable for a number of reasons. For one, Montpellier had never come close to threatening the dominance enjoyed by the likes of Lyon, Marseille or PSG. The last time the club enjoyed any silverware was the French cup 22 years ago.

The team was also purchased on a shoestring budget. While PSG could afford to blow ?40 million ($51.26 million) on Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore and hire Italian legend Carlo Ancelotti, the biggest outlay by Montpellier's former France under 21 coach Rene Girard was ?2 million ($2.56 million) for defender Henri Bedmino.

"It's unbelievable," midfielder Younes Belhanda told CNN after the game.

"I think they will stay here until tomorrow night! It's good for us, the fans, the president and the city of Montpellier. We are happy. We came from the academy and we win the league with a low earning club."

Montpellier's entire budget -- ?33 million ($42.29 million) -- was less than Pastore's transfer fee.

Given their title odds of 80-1 at the start of the season, with a team of journeyman players, no one gave Montpellier a chance. But a 2-2 draw with PSG -- expected to sweep all before them thanks to the club's Middle Eastern money -- at the start of the year changed the complexion of the title race.

The team's success -- much like European football's other fairytale league success, for Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona in Israel -- was built not on money but on nurturing young players in the academy, building team spirit and spotting talent and value in footballers previously discarded by everyone else.

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"There is an opportunity (in France) for small, well-run clubs (to do well)," said French football analyst James Eastham, who explained that France has had four different champions in four seasons, which gives opportunities to less well off teams.

"Montpellier have had the same president for decades, invested in youth and haven't spent a lot."

Take John Utaka, the Nigerian who scored the winning goals against Auxerre. He had experienced such a disastrous spell at Portsmouth that no club in England wanted to touch him.

France-born Moroccan playmaker Younes Belhanda, the outstanding player in this Montpellier side, has been with the team since he was 13 years old.

Striker Olivier Giroud worked his way up through the lower leagues before Montpellier saw him playing for second division Tours. He cost ?2million. This season he was the top scorer in the French league.

Yet despite the incredulity of the president, the team continued to win until -- like in the English Premier League and Italy's Serie A -- the title race came down to the last game of the season. But still Nicollin didn't entirely believe. He instead offered to have his hair cut in a B.A. Baracus-style mohawk if his team won the title.

Sure enough Montpellier passed the final test and Nicollin celebrated by having a drastic new hair cut: a mohawk sprayed orange and blue, the club's colors.

Nicollin is 68 years old.

"We had to be strong mentally and to stay focus," striker Giroud told CNN.

"The game wasn't easy. We stayed in the game and thanks to John (Utaka) we won. Everybody made a contribution this season. It's the title for a team, a squad and a region."

Yet the "impossible," as Nicollin had claimed, had become possible. Not only that, the success of Montpellier -- a team described as French football's "ugly ducklings" by coach Girard -- in one of Europe's top leagues gives hope that in the era of big money in football even the smaller teams have a shot at the biggest prizes.

Some think this will be the last time an unfancied team could hope to win the league, given PSG's unlimited funds. But even PSG took notice of the way that Montpellier operated.

"There were a lot of changes, players and coach. It is not easy to shape a team's identity," Ancelotti told Reuters of the upheaval at PSG since his arrival last year. But he was magnanimous in defeat, vowing to follow the blueprint set by the team that shocked France.

"We must look for continuity. There will be no revolution ... Montpellier won the title thanks to a style of football they had been building for years."

Source: http://rss.cnn.com/~r/rss/edition_sport/~3/cdZyxMpcd_k/index.html

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