It would be unimaginable in the Premier League, but in League 1 a promoted side are challenging at the top. James Eastham reports

French football fans must have wondered what the fuss was about when Birmingham City went on a 12-match unbeaten run from October to January. In Ligue 1, there’s a newly promoted club challenging for the championship.

Montpellier are competing to become the first promoted side to land the league title since Monaco in 1978. Having returned to the top flight after a five-year absence by virtue of a final-day triumph against promotion rivals Strasbourg last May, they’ve gone on to defy the critics who said their outstanding start to the season couldn’t last. With 12 games to go, Montpellier were second only on goal difference, albeit behind a Bordeaux side that had two games in hand.

What makes their position all the more remarkable is they didn’t spend a single euro on new players in the transfer market last summer. Of the four players that arrived on free transfers, three have gone straight into their starting line-up, and one of them, Bosnia captain Emir Spahić, has been arguably Ligue 1’s best centre-half. Another new signing, left-back Cyril Jeunechamp (shown 95 yellow cards and 13 red cards during a 13-year career), summed up the mood at the club’s Grammont training headquarters: “It’s been a long time since I’ve known a team spirit as good as the one we’ve got here.” Having played for six clubs, he knows what he’s talking about.

The side’s most influential player is Alberto “Tino” Costa, whose journey from the Argentinian capital to the south of France was extraordinary. Playmaker Costa left Buenos Aires to play on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe at the age of 17, doing well enough to earn a move to the French mainland in 2004. He played for Racing Paris, Pau and Sète in the third division before finally getting a break at Montpellier in 2008.

After helping the side win promotion he has revealed the brilliance of his left foot to a wider audience this season. Given Diego Maradona’s propensity for doling out caps, it’s surprising 25-year-old Costa is still waiting for an international call.

A settled side has been a key factor in Montpellier’s progress – eight players have started 80 per cent or more of their league games. The club’s prolific youth system, which once spawned Laurent Blanc, has done its bit – right-back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and winger Karim Aït Fana are France Under-21 internationals, while four other first teamers have come through the ranks.

The manager is René Girard, appointed last summer as a replacement for Rolland Courbis (who has since spent five months in jail for his part in financial irregularities while Marseille boss from 1997 to 1999). Girard, a 55-year-old who played under Aimé Jacquet at Bordeaux in the 1980s, is exacting a form of revenge on France manager Raymond Domenech and technical director Gérard Houllier, who forced him out of his job as France Under-21 coach for no apparent reason in 2008. A straightforward, plain-speaking man, Girard has dispelled fears that he had lost touch with club management during ten years in various posts at the French FA.

Overseeing it all is Louis Nicollin, who built the club from nothing in 1974 to where they stand today. Heavily overweight (he’s trying to shed 20kg at the moment), the 66-year-old businessman earned his fortune from refuse collection. He made his name and that of the club via a series of transfer coups in the late 1980s, when Júlio César, Carlos Valderrama and Eric Cantona all played for Montpellier. More than 20 years on, he still acts like a fan who can’t believe his luck – he prefers sitting on the bench to executive boxes and owns a two-storey sports museum on his property which holds more than 2,000 shirts worn by stars such as Pelé, Diego Maradona and his friend Michel Platini.

Nicollin got into trouble with the football authorities and France’s gay rights groups earlier this season when he called Auxerre midfielder Benoît Pedretti a “faggot” following a tackle on Costa in a league match. He apologised the next day – and later said he had nothing against homosexuals because “they leave more birds for the rest of us”.

Nicollin was banned from all official duties for two months for his faggot outburst, but is back on the bench now and has finally acknowledged how well Montpellier are doing. “If we’re still second in the table when we play PSG at Parc des Princes on the final weekend, I’ll multiply the players’ win bonuses by ten,” he said. If they qualify for the Champions League, that will be loose change.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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