Spa breaks

James Eastham takes up the story of a club with big backing but a low profile, currently making a big splash in Ligue 2

Data emerged a couple of years ago revealing that the French eat just under a billion tonnes of yoghurt a year. If some of those consumers are buying Danone, the nation is unwittingly contributing to the success of one of France’s newest football clubs. Evian Thonon Gaillard made headlines in August when they won their opening three league games to briefly head the Ligue 2 table. Their start was all the more impressive because it came just a few short months after the club had taken its place in the second tier by winning last season’s National (third division) title.

More recent results have dampened expectations – Evian TG notably lost 5-1 at Dijon on September 17 after their excellent goalkeeper Bertrand Laquait was sent off seven minutes into the game – but the financial support the club enjoys as a result of Danone’s patronage lends them the potential to become a force in the French game. When Danone chief executive Franck Riboud bought into the club in 2005, the press instantly started speculating that Evian TG were set to become French football’s next big thing. Yet the most remarkable element of the story so far is just how little money has been spent. Riboud maintains a low profile, and insists the primary aim of the company’s involvement is to strengthen social links with Évian-les-Bains, the spa town where the multinational has 2,000 employees. As he says: “We [Danone] could sponsor a big international side if we wanted to. But that’s not what this is about.”

The club’s yo-yoing between the divisions since Riboud’s initial investment wiped out their debts five years ago is typical of many lower-league sides. In 2006, the club (then called Croix de Savoie) were relegated to France’s regional fourth division, winning back a place in the third tier a couple of years later. By now they were known as L’Olympique Croix de Savoie 74 following a merger with another local club, Olympique Thonon-Chablais. In 2009 they underwent a further rebranding exercise, becoming Evian Thonon Gaillard. All this was done on shoestring budgets.

Evian TG’s squad is typical for a Ligue 2 club. Of the 20 players who appeared in the club’s first seven games, only 11 have Ligue 1 experience. Over the summer, the club focused on signing youngsters that had failed to make the grade in Ligue 1 and players whose clubs had been relegated to the third division. Evian TG’s coach is Bernard Casoni, the former France centre-half whose unremarkable coaching career includes a spell in charge of Armenia’s national team.

The disparity between the club’s nouveau riche image and their day-to-day reality is best illustrated by the fact Evian TG don’t even have their own stadium. As promotion beckoned last spring, they started to look for new premises because their 3,600-capacity Stade Joseph-Moynat in Thonon wasn’t up to Ligue 2 standards. The club wanted to share FC Servette’s 30,000-capacity Stade de la Praille across the nearby border with Switzerland but UEFA refused, insisting Evian TG stay in France.

So instead the club now play at the 12,000-capacity Parc des Sports in Annecy, 55 miles from Évian. The travelling distance is one of the reasons attendances are lower than expected, although an average crowd of around 5,000 is respectable in a division where Ajaccio and Istres regularly attract fewer than 3,000 fans.

Despite their low profile, Evian TG have Zinedine Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu among their shareholders. The duo’s involvement is a source of curiosity for the media, but their investments are small – €10,000 (£8,600) each – and were made out of friendship with Riboud rather than to gain influence in running the club. Such illustrious associations can prove useful, however: the World Cup-winning pair turned up to give Evian TG’s players a few words of motivation last season. As the club continues to grow, the stars’ involvement will be surely beneficial in areas such as sponsorship, advertising and player recruitment.

Some media have drawn parallels between Evian TG and Arles-Avignon, another club that emerged from a merger to win promotion from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 at the first attempt last season. But you sense Evian TG wouldn’t mind making slower progress if that allowed them to catch up off the pitch. “Avoiding relegation comfortably would suit us this season,” said general manager Richard Dutruel recently. “We’ve got plans for a new training centre, and we’re looking at building a new stadium in the coming years. We’re a very young club, with our whole future ahead of us.” With Danone on board, that future looks likely to include Ligue 1 football.

From WSC 285 November 2010