x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Brest proving a match for Ligue 1 elite

France's Ligue 1 is in a state of flux. The dominance of Lyon is over after seven successive titles from 2002-08, with Bordeaux champions in 2009 and Marseille in 2010

Oscar Ewolo, centre, the Brest captain and defender, is one of seven African players in Alex Dupont's side.

 Fred Tanneau / AFP
Oscar Ewolo, centre, the Brest captain and defender, is one of seven African players in Alex Dupont's side. Fred Tanneau / AFP

France's Ligue 1 is in a state of flux. The dominance of Lyon is over after seven successive titles from 2002-08, with Bordeaux champions in 2009 and Marseille in 2010.

These three leading lights of French football, together with established clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Auxerre, Lens and Lille, knew they would face great challenges this season, but none of them thought that it would come from a promoted club in France's wettest city.

Stade Brestois 29, commonly known as Stade Brest, sit third in the table where just five points separate the leaders Marseille from Toulouse in 12th.

Unbeaten in their seven home games, Brest were leaders at the end of October. It was not what anyone was expecting.

They were promoted last season and returned to the top flight for the first time since 1991. Playing in the 16,000-capacity Stade Francis le Blé, the club from a seafaring city of 142,000 on France's extreme north-west coast merely aimed to stay up.

Closer to Plymouth than Paris, Brest is seen as a football outpost, as well as a geographic one.

Founded in 1903, they have spent more time in the third division than Ligue 1, though the 7,000 regulars who watched games witnessed some fine talents. Frank Ribery spent the 2003/04 season with Brest, helping them gain promotion to the second division. They wanted to keep him, but Ribery hankered after top-flight football and moved to Metz.

Other former players include the Argentine World Cup winning defender Jose Luis Brown. He played alongside compatriot Jose Higuain, father of Real Madrid's Gonzalo, who was born in Brest in 1987. France later tried to call up Higuain fils for their Under 20 team, but he had decided to play for Argentina.

David Ginola spent two years at the club in the early 90s before Paris Saint Germain signed him. Brest meet PSG at the Parc de Princes tomorrow enjoying the rare luxury of being above them in the league.

Much of the success is due to Alex Dupont, the coach, 54, a journeyman manager who rides to training on a Harley Davidson. Born in Dunkerque, he has often showed a survival spirit and has a reputation as a miracle worker after leading tiny Gueugnon to the League Cup in 2000. Appointed in 2009, the fans have started calling him "Sir Alex" and his half-time rants are just as cataclysmic as his Manchester United counterpart, according to many of his players.

In the stands, Les Bretois were not calling him Sir at the start of the season, as Brest picked up just one point from the first three matches.

Then Brest won six and drew two of their next eight games without conceding a single goal. When they beat Bordeaux 2-0, France began to sit up and take notice. Defeats at Lille and Breton neighbours Rennes have followed, but few expect Brest to go down. Gates have doubled to an average of 14,000.

After 790 minutes without conceding a goal, Dupont said: "The best form of defence is good defending, and that's what we've been doing."

Defenders includes the warrior-like centre-half Paul Baysse, a Breton Carles Puyol. He plays alongside the team's captain, Congolese international Oscar Ewolo, one of seven Africans in the squad. Ewolo is an evangelist who welcomes players to visit him at all hours.

Not all of his teammates take advantage of his hospitality, Brest's team spirit has become one of their greatest strengths. As Montpellier showed last season when they led Ligue 1 after 30 games, a good defence and a strong esprit de corps can take a team far.

sports@thenational.ae