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. This week? Dijon FCO.
1998 was a pretty exciting year for French Football. They hosted the World Cup, a proposition that used to be something to get excited about. That tournament was one of the first to stick in the mind of many and saw the arrival of several major talents into the collective consciousness. A 21 year old Ronaldo exploded out of the traps before falling victim to some unknown ailment before the final that left him a shadow of himself; Samuel Eto’o was the youngest player at the tournament, the 17 year old making an appearance in a 3-0 loss to Italy; and we can all enjoy the mental gymnastics of attempting to imagine Raul as a 20 year old starlet, rather than the fixture of the football landscape he quickly became.
I could go on forever, and I haven’t even mentioned Michael Owen or Jay-Jay Okocha. The biggest spotlight, however, should be shone on the hosts. Not only did they win the World Cup for the first time in their history, they did it in their own backyard, introducing players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry for the first time. Striding above all these was Zinedine Zidane.
The 25 year old Juventus player was a part of the 1996 European Championship squad but didn’t perform up to his standards at that tournament. The World Cup was his first, and he became the first French player to receive a red card when he was dismissed for stamping on Fuad Anwar in the group game against Saudi Arabia. He came back from his suspension and shined, most famously scoring two goals in the final against Brazil, a performance that rocketed him to stardom and saw his face being projected onto L’Arc De Triomphe.
Away from the City of a Thousand Lights that was suddenly in the grip of a football fever, a new club was being formed deep in the Burgundian countryside. Dijon Football Côte D’or were formed when the two largest clubs in the region Cercle Sportif Laïque Dijonnais and Dijon FC both found themselves in the same division, the Championnat de France Amateurs, or CFA. The two teams merged together to form a stronger team and prevent the splitting of the limited fan base between two teams at the same level. With the creation of one team, you see the abolition of two others, so where is the international outrage? Where are the think-pieces likening this to MK Dons or RB Leipzig? Why is everyone so damn calm about this?
The answer goes in two directions. The first – honestly it shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand – is the fact that very few people care about the fourth tier of French Football. I know, it’s hard to fathom, but there it is. This is the same as RB Leipzig, a team that’s actually been around since 2007 but only became everyone’s favourite club to hate in the past year or so. Compare the scorn with the attitude towards RB Salzburg, a similar entity but in the comparative backwater of Austria. Or even the model of Manchester City creating franchise clubs in New York (NYCFC) and Melbourne City, where it bought and re-branded an existing team, the Melbourne Heart. No-one is boycotting these symbols of branded homogeneity because they’re in leagues that barely register with the traditional (read: English/Western European) football media.
The other side of the answer lies in the long tradition of team mergers in France. After some light research I found that 12 of the 20 clubs in the French top flight have a merger of some form in their history. Of those that don’t Nancy and Toulouse are new entities that rose from the ashes of failed clubs in 1967 and 1970, respectively. Lorient is a borderline case of the same. As far as I can tell, only Angers, Bastia, Guingamp, Lyon, and Marseille can draw a direct line between the current iteration and the original club, but with Lyon it involves a dispute and split over professionalism. I’m willing to believe I’m mistaken on the others.
Of those that do have mergers in their past, six are before World War II. Caen were the result of Club Malherbe Caennais and Club Sportif Caennais combining in 1913; Metz formed in 1932 when two amateur athletic clubs merged, one of them Cercle Athletique Messin; Monaco was an amalgamation of several smaller clubs in 1919, both Monegasque and French; Nice was a gymnastics club founded in 1904 before absorbing Gallia Football Athletic Club in 1908, along with their black and red stripes; Stade Rennais started in 1901, before merging once in 1904, with FC Rennais, and again in 1924, with Rennes Etudiant-Club.
The resultant Stade Rennais Université Club played on in various competitions until 1972, when Stade Rennais Football Club was settled on; Saint-Étienne was founded in 1919 by employees of the grocery store Groupe Casino. Originally called Amicale des Employés de la Société des Magasins Casino (ASC), they had to change the name in 1920 to Amical Sporting Club, and then merged with Stade Forezien Universitaire in 1927, changing the name again to Association Sportive Stéphanoise. This lasted until professionalism came to France in 1933, when the team became the AS Saint-Étienne we all know.
World War Two was obviously a major factor in French society from 1939 onwards, but we’re just looking at the effect the Vichy Regime had on football here. As part of the Révolution Nationale they outlawed professionalism, preferring the pursuit of athletics for the sake of physical health and vigour. When professionals were allowed back into the game for the 1941-42 season, clubs were only allowed seven per team, the remainder having to be local amateurs.This was an attempt to instil regional characteristics and pride into the football clubs, a drive that saw several amalgamate including Bordeaux, Lille, and Nantes.
Bordeaux already had a merger in their past, with Girondins Guyenne Sport in 1936, but they combined with AS Port in 1940, a move that put the famous chevron, or scapular, on the chests of the Bordeaux team. Lille was the result of Olympique Lillois and SC Fives being forced to merge in 1944, and FC Nantes was a brand new creation, moulded out of several smaller clubs in 1943. For a really good look at football under the Vichy Regime, check here.
That leaves Paris St. Germain, formed in 1970 when Paris FC merged with Stade St. Germain, and Montpellier, which is kind of from 1974. Honestly the Montpellier story is an odd one involving bankruptcy, name changes, and at least one breakaway team that poached all their players. And Dijon makes 20! So it’s safe to say there is precedent for teams merging in France. The reasons for mergers in the past appear relatively straightforward, larger sports or athletics club wanting to branch out into football or strengthen their already existing teams, or a state mandated amalgamation in an attempt to foster regional pride. But what about the three more recent examples?
I reached out to a few writers on twitter for their thoughts on why there have traditionally been more mergers in French football. Admittedly it’s not going to get at the socioeconomic heart of the issue, but you’re not paying for this so you’ll live. Robin Bairner of Goal.com pointed towards the examples of the Vichy Regime and regionalism which we’ve already covered. Julien Laurens of ESPN put it down to a lack of passion for football in France, which is a view that Phillipe Auclair has been on record with on several occasions. Rugby is also popular in France, but aside from the super clubs, these teams are having troubles as well.
It seems that France really isn’t crazy about sport, certainly not year round, and the half empty stadiums I’ve been witnessing when watching the games stand in testament to that. Zizou’s projection onto a national monument was a powerful gesture; here was the son of Algerian immigrants who had made it to great heights from the roughest parts of Marseilles. A symbol for the secular post-racial republic France viewed itself as. But with a new dawn, the symbol is lost, the light from a single bulb struggling vainly to hold back the flood from a star. As the nation celebrates winning the World Cup, two teams in the fourth tier have to combine to survive.
Dijon FCO finally turned professional in 2004 at the behest of then coach Rudi Garcia. He managed to guide his charges to promotion that year, as well as a run to the semi-finals of the Coupe De France, where they beat Saint-Étienne and Lens, among others, before falling to Châteuroux. They had a brief stay in Ligue 1 in 2011-12 getting relegated straight away, and were stuck in Ligue 2 until this year, finishing 2nd and earning promotion back to the top flight.
Dijon have played four games so far this season, their only points coming in a surprise 4-2 win over Lyon, a game that saw Júlio Tavares snag a goal. The Cape Verde international was one of two players that had 11 goals last year, the other being Loïs Diony, and the hope will be that either of these two can translate their scoring to the higher tier. Frédéric Sammaritano is important in the middle of the park as well, scoring twice already this year. The creative burden on him will likely be lessened by the loan arrival of Marvin Martin, but the Lille-contracted playmaker has yet to make an appearance for his new club.
 The CFA is the fourth tier of French football, and has as torturous a history as any league in the world, but suffice to say it’s current incarnation was conjured into reality in 1993 as National 2, before it became the CFA for the 1998 season.
More from Colin