Colin Crawford is a museum worker with a well cultivated taste for the arcane and unusual. Buy him a cup of tea and he’ll talk about anything to do with soccer.
This season Colin is exploring Ligue 1, club by club. Here in the second installment, he looks into SC Bastia’s troubled history, and finds a club that has not necessarily escaped its dark past.
A damp July evening in 1978 at Stade de Furiani and the 29 year old Claude Papi is about to write himself into Corsican legend. SC Bastia were on the European journey of a lifetime but found themselves behind 3-2 on aggregate to Grasshoppers Zurich in the second leg of the 1978 UEFA Cup semi-final. In the 68th minute a looping cross was sent over from the right flank were it was met by a group of three players on the edge of the six yard box. Moroccan centre forward Abdelkrim “Merry” Krimau got to it first, nodding it back for the Porto-Vecchio born playmaker, Papi. The instantly recognizable one-club-man dispatched it towards the left side of the goal with urgency, putting Bastia ahead one goal to nil. They would hold on to the lead and book their place in the final of the UEFA Cup on away goals.
Sporting Club de Bastia were representing more than the port town of 40,000 on the northern end of Corsica that night. The burgeoning Corsican separatist sentiment had violently come to a head three years previously in what would become known as The Aleria Incident. An armed group of twenty members of the Corsican Regionalist Action (ARC) occupied a wine cellar in Eastern Corsica, an insurrectionist action with decades of frustration powering it. The First World War decimated the young male population of Corsica, reducing the workforce and slumping the island into a recession. Those that survived stuck with the army, and those that could leave, did, often taking up positions in colonial administration or starting businesses overseas.
A brief, ugly foray into irredentism saw some looking for an affiliation with Mussolini’s fascist Italian state before solidifying into an autonomism cause in post World War II. This sentiment only grew deeper in the 1960s following the collapse of the French colonies. Those who lived and worked overseas moved back to the island and the younger Corsicans were suddenly deprived of a lucrative avenue of employment. The French state then stepped in after Algeria gained independence, re-settling 18,000 French citizens in the largely unused eastern plains and providing them with financial support, a measure that Corsicans felt was never extended to them.
The aforementioned Aleria Incident was a response to these perceived slights. The ARC wanted to raise awareness of their plight, as well as denounce the supposed takeover of the “pied-noirs” on the island. Michel Poniatowski, the French Interior Minister, responded with force, sending close to 2,000 riot police and gendarmes along with light armoured vehicles in an attempt to end the occupation. Two gendarmes were killed in the assault, and a week later the ARC was dissolved by governmental order, a move that only served to escalate tensions, resulting in riots in the streets of Bastia and the death of a former ARC member. 1976 saw the formation of a new group called the National Liberation Front of Corsica, a combination of two of the more militant groups already in existence. It was a marriage celebrated with bombings rather than fireworks.
As much as those in charge of the world game would like us to believe it, it’s impossible to keep politics out of sports. SC Bastia was not an exception to this rule, acting as the avatar for Corsicans on the national stage. The third place league finish in 1976-77 is the highest position Bastia have ever achieved and the fact it was powered by goals from the great Serbian left winger Dragan Džajić and mainland born François Félix was overlooked in favour of celebrating qualification to the UEFA Cup.
Džajić returned to Yugoslavia before the campaign started, but the team was still left with a good deal of talent. Charles Orlanducci, known as the “Lion of Vescovato”, gave the team a solid base, and the Dutch maestro Johnny Rep was at the sharp end scoring goals for fun. Orchestrating this success was the Corsican local and lifelong Bastia player, Claude Papi. The number 10 is always easy to spot in footage thanks to his balding pate, emerging through his hair like a mountain top through cloud cover. He scored seven goals en route to the two legged final against PSV, the most important being the lashed finish in our opening scene. I’d suggest mute for this one.
The final was something of a let down with PSV Eindhoven winning 3-0 on aggregate over two legs. In an odd twist Jacques Tati, the mime, comedy actor, and director, would be commissioned to produce a documentary about the game. The footage was likely shelved after Bastia’s loss, but the 26 minute film was eventually released in 2002. Corsica had been announced on the European stage, the jerseys of Bastia proudly bearing the ‘Testa Mora’ of the Corsican flag on their front. Apparently the dissonance of directing anger towards immigrants from Northern Africa whilst having a Moor’s Head as the emblem of the island wasn’t too much of a problem.
Just a few years later would come the first piece of major silverware, the 1981 Coupe De France. Clade Papi was gone, and Johnny Rep had joined their opposition for the final, Saint-Etienne, leaving that team with a formidable line-up that included Jacques Santini, Patrick Battison, and Michel Platini. Bastia still had their captain Orlanducci at the heart of their defence, but a new face was tasked with scoring goals; the evergreen Cameroonian legend Roger Milla. He had arrived on Corsica the year before and would spend four seasons with the team, netting 35 goals in his stay. None were more important than in the 58th minute of the Coupe De France final, when he collected a long ball from Orlanducci, rounded Jean Castenada in the Saint-Etienne net, and rolled it home. There was no dancing at the corner flag this time, but it stood as the winning goal on the evening that a small team from Corsica went to Paris and put their thumb in the eye of the French Football establishment.
A photograph of the Coupe De France being presented to the massed crowds from the balcony of l’Hôtel de Ville
Tensions still exist between Corsica and the French state to this day. Paris is still seen as a wellspring of Corsica’s ills and it’s not uncommon for state buildings and holiday homes to be targets for small-scale bombings and arson attacks. As much as one can understand the frustrations that Corsicans may feel when dealing with the French state, the past and recent actions towards the North African communities on the island are impossible to defend. The banning of the Burkini in the summer of 2016 came after police in Bastia had to stop a 200-strong mob from marching into a housing estate with a large Musilm population. The weak excuse of secularism does little to hide the bigotry in play, and it appears that Corsica has fallen prey to the familiar narrative of separatist groups acting as cradles for political extremism.
These misguided sentiments were on display on the opening day of the 2016/17 season when Bastia hosted Paris St. Germain. They lost 1-0, falling to a scruffy goal after what could be considered a solid defensive effort. A 10th place finish in the 2015/16 season appears to be the height of their ambition for this year, as they lost several of their best players, including leading goalscorer Floyd Ayité to Fulham, Julian Palmieri to Lille, and François Kamano to Bordeaux.
The hope is that the goal scoring has been replacing with the Jerson Cabral joining on a free from Twente as the bright spot in their transfer business. The free dribbling winger should be a fun player to watch throughout the year, and will be looking to link up with Thievy Bifouma, another new arrival on loan from Espanyol. Bifouma’s club strike rate isn’t stellar, including his two goals in six games whilst on loan with West Bromwich Albion, but his 10 goals in 19 appearances for the Congolese national team point to a player that knows where the goal is. I know I’m personally looking forward to seeing if Sebastian Squillaci can still run at the age of 36, as he lines up in the centre of defence for the Corsicans.
They took on Lorient this weekend, and I did my best to keep in mind that the actions of a vocal minority don’t necessarily reflect the feeling of an entire population. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to throw my support behind a football club that harbours supporters that express opinions that are so counter to my own.
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