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James Kelly returns with Untold Declines, looking at the French side FC Istres and their short stay in Ligue 1.


In the south of France, just north of the town of Istres lies the Étang de L’Olivier lake. In 2008, a water jet, a sort of artificial geyser, was installed. The highest of its kind in France, water is fired up by a 125-horsepower engine, to reach a remarkable level of 50 metres before falling away. As life would have it, the cycle of this has become the perfect metaphor for the local football club; FC Istres Ouest-Provence.


Background

Until the 1960s, the town of Istres had a population of under 10,000, with the club little more than an amateur side only known locally. The size of the town increased exponentially thanks to the nearby Le Tubé airbase and upgrading of the port at Fos-sur-Mer. On this wave of growth, in May 1977, local building contractor Michel Aviet became president of the club. One of his first moves was to appoint former Yugoslavia goalkeeper Djordje Korac as manager. Under this partnership, Istres achieved nothing short of a phenomenal rise. Starting in 1980 when they won the seventh division in their region, the Aviet-Korac partnership recorded a remarkable five promotions in seven seasons, turning professional in 1985 upon reaching Division 2.

Korac however left after this final promotion, for Saint-Dizier, and Aviet sold the club in 1990 after four lower mid-table finishes. The fairytale of promotion was almost realised in 1991/92, as Istres ended up in 3rd and were a solitary point off going up. Unlike today’s Ligue 2, Division 2 was split into two groups, and only the first two teams in each gained promotion. They came further to national attention during the following season, as they managed to knock Lyon out of the Coupe de France before losing 2-1 to Marseille. Relegation in 1994 was followed by several seasons stagnating in Division 3, and with that the story seemed to be at an end. That was until 1997, when Istres were purchased by Bertrand Benoît, and a return to Division 2 shortly followed.

Relegation was narrowly avoided in 2002 on goal difference, whilst the following season wasn’t much better. It was the appointment of another manager from Eastern Europe though, Bosnian Mehmed Baždarević, which led to realisation of the impossible dream. Under Mécha’s stewardship, and with an experienced squad including a starting XI with eight players aged 29 or over, Istres shocked France to end up in 3rd. The league system had been reformed though, and this time that was enough to earn promotion to newly re-named top flight.


Ligue 1

Not resting on their laurels, Istres set about a big overhaul of the squad. Continuity from the previous season was almost non-existent, with only Christophe Dumolin, Laurent Courtois and Brahim Thiam maintaining their places on a regular basis. Amor Kehiha, a player who’d been at the club since 2000, was dropped for the majority of the season, and only forced his way back into the side in late March. Finally, the clinical strikeforce of Jacques Remy and Xavier Gravelaine were both sold, to Rouen and Sion, with this decision ultimately proving costly. New signings included Victor Hugo Montaño, a Colombian striker who would go on to score over 70 goals in French football, international defenders Abdoulaye Faye and Niša Saveljić, Montpellier keeper Rudy Riou, and Tunisian midfielder Adel Chedli from Sochaux.

Despite drawing the opener with Caen, the lack of familiarity in the squad showed, as it took Istres until the 17th game to pick up three points, courtesy of a 1-0 triumph over Bastia. Between these two results there were several credible draws, including away at Auxerre, Bordeaux, Nice and Sochaux, and against Lyon and PSG at home. Trouble was, they didn’t really have a home, with the 7200 capacity of their Stade Bernard Bardin ruled too small for Ligue 1. As a result, the majority of the season spent playing at the Stade de Costières in Nîmes whilst their Stade Parsemain, six months behind schedule, was finished. Despite the credibility of these results, the club still sat six points from safety at the winter break.

Deemed unsatisfactory by Benoît, who reluctantly fired Baždarević on 9th January, Gravelaine returned. Unfortunately this was as interim manager rather than in a goalscoring capacity, with that responsibility entrusted upon new-boy Ibrahima Bakayoko. A former Ivorian international who once cost Everton €6.75 million, in his ill-fated spell in England he only managed 4 goals in 23 games. He was also rumoured to have been rejected by Arsenal after doctors discovered he was ten years older than he claimed. Unsurprisingly Bakayoko had little impact during his short stint in the south of France, with only three goals in 15 games.

Performances did pick up, including an away win at Lens, draw in Marseille, narrow loss at eventual champions Lyon and comeback from two goals down to draw at PSG. There was also a 1-0 home victory over Sochaux, the first match at the Stade Parsemain, which finally opened in April after a series of court proceedings and the theft of several tonnes of building materials had delayed construction even more. The main issue as mentioned was goals, with Bakayoko and fellow January arrival Leandro Amaral unable to greatly contribute as Istres recorded a truly dismal total of just 25 all season. Defensively the side were actually quite solid, an 8-0 thumping at Lille aside, only conceding a few more than most teams. Furthermore, half their losses came by the odd goal, whilst 14 matches were drawn. For a team with one of the smallest budgets in Ligue 2, let alone Ligue 1, this is a highly commendable effort. As seen in Southampton’s recent loss in the EFL Cup final though, there’s seldom reward for that in football. The hard truth was Istres were marooned in 20th, 11 points from reprieve, and relegated to Ligue 2.


Aftermath

Following a poor showing on their return to the second division, Benoît decided to sell 40% of the club on the stock exchange in early 2007. These were bought by several investors, the most important being Bernard Calvignac and Henry Crémadès. The initial plan was an injection of €250,000 into the club, with the grand ambition being promotion back to Ligue 1 within five years. There was also talk of constructing hotels and a sports injury rehabilitation centre at the stadium, before a series of unfortunate events. A mere few months after this flotation, Istres were relegated from Ligue 2; then the global financial crisis occurred, meaning a plummet in share prices. A club who just a few years previously had recorded a profit of €2 million and were known for being extremely well run, were now in financial dire straits. The experiment, with Istres just the second French team to float shares after Lyon, backfired massively. Benoît admitted a few years later they didn’t attract anywhere near the interest they were hoping for.

One possible reason for this could be the location of Istres. Marseille can be reached in just over 30 minutes by car, and as a result most people in the area support L’OM. Istres had decided to go ahead with building the stadium in 2003, aspiring for growth and a possible promotion. Initially the club were scheduled to only pay €2.8 million, an affordable amount, with the rest subsidised by the Ouest Provence. The final outlay for the club however surpassed €13 million. Now that would be fine with a decent fanbase, but as mentioned, the club have a very small potential supporters group, owing to the already mentioned location and speed of their rise up the leagues.

Since opening, the Stade Parsemain has been consistently empty. Average attendances stand at under 3500, around 20% of the capacity, and enough to only fill half the seating allowance of their old ground. For a club as small and financially secure as Istres, this project was a huge commitment, and one which put pressure onto the team to perform on the pitch. They did return to Ligue 2 in 2009 after winning the Championnat National, but Benoît stepped down in 2010 as president, before selling his remaining shares in 2012 to focus more on his private life. After several bad executive decisions, Collado followed, stepping down as president in 2013 over disagreements with Calvignac and Crémadès. The former Lens CEO issued a damning indictment on the two men by stating “we were a small club that worked perfectly, but the shareholders wanted more and ruined everything”.

After four seasons where coach José Pasqualetti did a stellar job to keep them up, battling sales of the best players and operating on the lowest budget in the league, Istres finally succumbed to the drop in 2014. This time the problems were defensively, with a league worst 74 goals conceded. Up front they scored more than 4th placed Nancy, with Naby Keïta, now making waves in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, providing 7 assists on the way to a €1.5 million sale to Red Bull Salzburg. Afterwards there were rumoured darker tones to this relegation, with it emerging an unnamed player had accepted a bribe in a 1-0 loss to Nîmes.

Naby Keïta, now a star man for RB Leipzig, was part of the Istres side relegated from Ligue 2 in 2014. (Photo by Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Istres couldn’t prepare for the new season though, as a series of off field issues meant they didn’t know which league they would be in. This involved the DNCG, the widely loathed financial watchdog of French football. The people in charge were refusing to allow Orléans and Luzenac promotion to Ligue 2, whilst also waiving Valenciennes’ relegation from Ligue 1. This all meant Istres were due to avoid demotion. Due to Luzenac’s tiny stadium and the widely-known harshness of the DNCG on these matters, there was never any doubt that the village team from the Pyrenees would not be allowed entry. However, Istres still needed one of Orléans or Valenciennes to also be denied a place in Ligue 2. Unfortunately for Les Aviateurs this didn’t happen, with Orléans successfully appealing the DNCG’s initial verdict, and local politician Jean-Louis Borloo becoming president at Valenciennes. With that he cleared their estimated €10 million debts, and Istres’ place in the upcoming National season was confirmed.

This summer of uncertainty had left Istres unable to prepare for the new season, managerless and with few players willing to sign. In the words of assistant manager Philippe-Max Valentin, “we have changed about 80% of the team”, and once again this mass turnover was to prove their undoing. In the first 20 National games, only one win was secured, and the club were left with another relegation battle on their hands. This predictably ended with a dismal record of four wins all campaign, and just 22 points on the board. The problem now was where did they go from here?

Only the top two tiers of French football are professional, with the third tier National semi-pro and everything below that entirely amateur. Now we come back to those pesky people at the DNCG, who this time were dealing directly with Istres. A grant of €200,000 from the local council allowed the club to attend the court hearing and continue into the new season. Calvignac and Crémadès didn’t even bother to turn up, with it being ruled in their absence that due to their financial situation, Istres would not be allowed to enter any national championship, whilst also losing their professional status. That meant they couldn’t play in the top four divisions, and were forced to turn to the local Mediterranean league. Article 3.2 of their regulations state if a club is excluded from national competitions, it can enter the league of their reserve team. For Istres, this was the Division D’Honneur Regionale Méditerranée Poule A; the French seventh division.


Future

Having spent the past 30 years in the top three national divisions, to suddenly find themselves in the third tier at regional level must be a bit of a shock. Opposing teams now turn up to the Stade Parsemain and take photos, with the impression they are playing a professional side. This couldn’t be any further from the truth, as in little over a decade, Istres have gone from facing a Monaco team including Emmanuel Adebayor, Maicon and Patrice Evra, to competing against the principality’s third team. Yes, that actually exists.

Last year they ended in 5th, and in the summer dropped the now defunct Ouest Provence from their name, becoming Istres Football Club in a bid to signal a fresh start. With two teams going up from their group to the Division D’Honneur Méditeranée, Istres are currently 2ndat the time of writing, although logically too far off leaders AC Arles. A measure perhaps of just how far they’ve fallen is a quick Google search of FC Rousset SVO, the team directly behind them in the table. One of the top results is a video of a person, presumably (and hopefully) a player, dancing around the dressing room in his boxers.

The Coupe de France has however offered Istres a chance to forget about reality, and rekindle past glories. This year they reached the round of 64, knocking out Ligue 2 Nîmes, the team whose stadium they borrowed for most of 2004/05, and fourth division Rodez AF. It may not sound too impressive, but they were the lowest ranked side left at that stage. Unfortunately, the game against Consolat Marseille ended in a 3-1 defeat, albeit after extra time. Even for this enormous cup tie though, a local derby nonetheless, just over 1000 spectators turned up. The money from this cup run did however go a long way to settling a debt the club owed to the French FA, around €73,000. It also massively boosted the annual operating budget, which now stands at just €600,000.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in January as former president Benoît passed away, aged 57. He was still a big fan of the club he once referred to as “his baby”, and with his passing one more connection to the past is gone. Like that water in the nearby lake, FC Istres have reached the pinnacle, only to return to earth with an almighty splash.

James Kelly

James Kelly

Man Utd and Wrexham fan from North Wales. Currently studying far away in Exeter. European football watcher with soft spots for Marseille, Roma and Real Zaragoza. Love researching declines of teams, visiting stadiums and collecting football shirts!
James Kelly

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